A family walks on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., on July 20. (Wade Parry/Associated…)
The billboard hard by the Atlantic City Expressway is supposed to speak for a single casino, not an entire company town. But Revel Casino Resort’s marketing slogan resonates loudly throughout this struggling seaside resort.
“Gamblers Wanted,” it says. And how.
Atlantic City, the erstwhile East Coast gambling mecca, is on an epic losing streak; over the past six years, competitive and economic forces have crushed the local casino economy, driving revenue down more than 40 percent.
Once, the city that inspired the board game Monopoly had its own gambling monopoly on this side of the country. Now, it’s more Marvin Gardens than Boardwalk, with states from Maryland to Maine lining up to join the high-stakes game for tax revenue and middle-class jobs.
In 2006, when gambling in Atlantic City reached record levels, there were 27 commercial and tribal casinos, slots parlors and racetrack casinos in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, according to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth’s Center for Policy Analysis. Now, there are 55 — with more casinos coming in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Pennsylvania, which first allowed casino gambling in 2006, surpassed New Jersey last year as the second-largest U.S. gambling market (after Nevada), with players choosing convenience (a single casino close to home) over critical mass (there are a dozen casinos in Atlantic City, that state’s only gambling locale).
In Maryland, which has embarked on its own massive gambling expansion, casino revenue tripled in the latest fiscal year. Thirteen months after opening, Maryland Live Casino — which has hired dozens of dealers and gaming supervisors away from Atlantic City — rivals the ocean resort’s biggest player, Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa. In July, Maryland’s largest casino collected $52.4 million from its slot machines and table games, compared with $64.2 million at Borgata.
This month, the Arundel Mills casino will open a 52-table poker room that analysts say is likely to pull even more business out of Atlantic City. As if to punctuate the shifting fortunes, poker at Maryland Live will launch Aug. 28 just as the opulent if oft-empty poker room closes at Revel, a $2.4 billion beachfront property that filed for bankruptcy less than a year after it opened.
There are still profits being made around Atlantic City, where the first casino opened on the historic boardwalk 31/2 decades ago. But the barrier-island town has been losing its lifeblood business at a breathtaking clip. In 2006, gross gambling revenue here was a record $5.2 billion. The total has gone down every year since; in 2012, the number was barely over $3 billion — the lowest mark since 1991.
“The situation there has become catastrophic,” said Steve Norton, a gambling analyst with a long history in Atlantic City, where he opened the first casino, Resorts International, in 1978. (His son, Robert Norton, runs Maryland Live.)
And the outlook isn’t any better this year, even as surveys suggest Atlantic City’s image is improving: In the first half of 2013, gambling revenue was off by nearly 11 percent.
Officials tout increased luxury-tax and occupancy-tax revenue, which indicate increased spending on non-gambling activities and attractions and on lodging in roughly 20,000 rooms. But Atlantic City is a gambling-
dependent city with a gambling-based economy that is shrinking rapidly.
“It’s dismal,” said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. “They have serious issues.”
And more threats loom. In November, New Yorkers will vote on a major casino-expansion measure.
Rebranding a gambling city
One recent morning, in the shadow of the Trump Taj Mahal, men and women in suits went about the work of saving Atlantic City.
“What we need to do is try to rebrand and reimagine Atlantic City as a national destination,” said John Palmieri, who was appointed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to run the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Christie has called the city’s revitalization “a key priority” of his administration. His photo is displayed in the lobby of the converted firehouse, where state employees have been tasked with turning his bet into a winner.
Legal sports books at casinos and horse tracks around the state could help. New Jersey voters approved a sports-betting measure in 2011, but it was blocked by a federal judge. The state has appealed.
Palmieri’s agency is not directly responsible for improving gambling revenue. Instead it focuses on making Atlantic City a more attractive place to visit and on trying to gin up more convention and meeting business. (Atlantic City has just a tiny fraction of the $16 billion meetings market in the Northeast, according to the reinvestment authority.)