A Boardwalk Empire Crumbles: Can Atlantic City Be Revived?

Hobbled by the recession and outglitzed by new competitors, America's Playground has fallen on hard times. Betting big on a comeback by the boardwalk

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Thomas Dworzak

USA. Atlantic City, New Jersey. 2008. Pre-election road trip.

Teenage girls have colonized a hallway outside the poker room at the Trump Taj Mahal, and they are shrieking loud enough to pique the attention of the card sharks inside. "Jonas Brothers concert," explains one. His opponent squints at the crowd peering into the room, faces pressed against the glass partition separating the newcomers from the natives. He shrugs. "I raise."

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is placing a hefty wager of his own. In an attempt to resuscitate Atlantic City's ailing casino district, Christie is proposing that a state-led authority assume control of everything from its police patrols to marketing and business development. The gambling mecca's makeover is the linchpin of a sweeping plan, sketched out by a special commission, to shore up the state's gaming industry by trimming regulations, severing horse-racing subsidies and privatizing facilities at the Meadowlands sports complex outside New York City. "Atlantic City is dying," Christie said. "If anybody's got a better idea, come forward with it."

The point of the bet is to protect profits. Atlantic City's 11 casinos generate nearly $1 billion in state tax revenue from some 35 million annual visitors. But the house edge has dwindled, and six have entered bankruptcy or restructuring in the past year. As recession-battered tourists put away their wallets, gaming revenues have plummeted 25% since 2006, and the town has shed 12,000 jobs.

In its heyday, Atlantic City was a haven of hedonism, its mystique etched onto the Monopoly board. Emerging as a popular summer enclave in the mid — 19th century when a new railway line linked it with Philadelphia, it boasted an iconic beachfront boardwalk and, later, the Miss America pageant. "It was Disneyland before there was Disneyland — the most ornate, over-the-top resort outside Coney Island," says Bryant Simon, author of Boardwalk of Dreams, a history of Atlantic City. "It was a place where people came to announce that they had made it in America."

But even as a symbol of upward mobility, Atlantic City was beset by crime and political corruption, and the advent of air travel let vacationers from the region decamp for other destinations. A 1976 voter referendum legalizing gambling gave the economy a jolt, but while money poured into the casinos, it did little to enrich the city in their shadow, and its population plunged from 66,000 in the 1930s to fewer than 40,000 today, about 25% of whom live in poverty. For long stretches, residents of the fourth biggest tourist destination in the U.S. have lacked access to basic staples like a supermarket and a movie theater.

The legalization of table games in Pennsylvania and Delaware has cannibalized customers, leaving Atlantic City struggling to answer an existential question. "If I'm an average tourist who likes to gamble, why should I go to Atlantic City?" asks David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Christie's plan, which will again be debated this month, aims to dispel safety concerns by sprucing up blighted blocks by next summer. But despite frustration with the city's feckless management and broad agreement about its problems, polls show that a plurality of New Jersey residents oppose state intervention. Jim Whelan, a state senator and former Atlantic City mayor, says luring convention business and offering new forms of entertainment — like Jonas Brothers concerts — could help spark a comeback. But past attempts to sanitize the city's image have failed. "We are what we are," Whelan says. "Atlantic City is not going to be a family town."

Instead, it is staking its future on projects like the Revel casino, a glittering glass shell that stands empty and unfinished, waylaid by a $1 billion shortfall. In July a development authority allotted $18 million to revamp streets leading to the Revel. Facing long odds, Atlantic City may have little choice but to double down.