Around dusk on a recent sticky summer night, Mark Gawel and his son took turns taking photos of each other standing in front of the big silver letters marking the entrance to the Revel, Atlantic City’s newest casino.
He wanted to “get a couple shots of it, just in case it doesn’t exist [soon],” he said.
In late August, the city was still hoping a last-minute buyer would swoop in and keep the bankrupt casino open. But the Revel closed in early September and workers took down those silver letters. Three other casinos have already closed or will close this year, leaving roughly 6,000 casino workers unemployed and the city searching for a new path forward.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will host a summit on the future of Atlantic City on Monday, with local officials, congressmen, and gambling industry stakeholders all pondering the fate of the faded gambling mecca.
“Reinvent Atlantic City again,” advised Gawel, a housekeeping supervisor at a nearby casino. “It’s a shame. After 35 years of having casinos here, we should have been bigger, more like Vegas.”
He thinks the city needs to capitalize on its ocean location and to better cater to families.
“We’re going through a transitional time,” said John Palmieri, the executive director of the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. “There are 20 new casino operations within a couple hours’ drive now, and five years ago they didn’t exist.”
He agrees that Atlantic City needs to bolster its non-gaming options.
“Our role is to create these other reasons for visitation, mostly driven by tourism, but the convention trades and some of the destination retail and the hotel activities that can survive beyond gaming,” he explained.
Gaming revenue peaked in 2006 at over $5 billion, but it’s been on a steep slide since. A few years ago, Atlantic City started using the slogan “Do Anything. Do Everything. Do AC,” trying to market itself as more than just casinos.
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian wants the city to host more events, concerts, and conferences.
“What we’ve lost is the older people who used to come,” he says. “The blue-haired Italian ladies aren’t coming here anymore [to] the casinos. What we have is a young crowd, because the casinos that have nightclubs are doing real well.”
He’s hoping a new campus for a local university will open by 2016, attracting even more young people.
But the city could take another hit if plans move forward to build new casinos in northern New Jersey.
Del Rowley was a regular at one of Atlantic City’s closed casinos. Standing on a street corner in Manhattan, he says if a casino opens closer to New York with similar games and “comps,” he’d switch in a heartbeat.
“Atlantic City’s two and a half hours [away],” he said. “So it’s a lot easier to go someplace closer.”
Moreover, all the press over Atlantic City’s troubles doesn’t help its fight for business.
There’s a famous quote often attributed to Mark Twain: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Atlantic City is hoping to be able to say something similar.
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