Too much Atlantic in Atlantic City: Beach erosion has casinos desperately seeking sand by summer

Weeks of winter storms have badly eroded beaches in the northern section of town, leaving little if any sand on which to play during all but the lowest tides.

Sand dunes on the beach

FILE - A load of sand is dumped on the beach in front of the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J., Friday, May 12, 2023. The Ocean, Resorts and Hard Rock casinos want federal officials to expedite a beach replenishment project planned for 2024 so that it creates usable beaches this summer, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says work might not start until the fall. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry, File)

The ocean and beaches have always been a part of Atlantic City’s identity: from salt water taffy to Miss America bathing beauties to the name of the place itself, the city has been marketed as a place to have fun by the sea.

But there is a little too much Atlantic in Atlantic City this year as the crucial summer season approaches. Weeks of winter storms have badly eroded beaches in the northern section of town, leaving little if any sand on which to play during all but the lowest tides.

Executives with the three northernmost casinos: the Ocean Casino Resort, Resorts and Hard Rock, are pressing the federal and state governments to expedite a beach replenishment project that was supposed to have been done last year.

But under the current best-case scenario, new sand won’t be hitting the beaches until late summer, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that oversees such projects.

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And that has the casinos concerned about not having an essential element of their tourism appeal. Atlantic City has long said its beaches set it apart from the plentiful gambling options elsewhere in the region and the country. Without them, it could be a harder sell in attracting tourists and gamblers.

“One of the highlights of coming to Atlantic City has always been the beaches and the Boardwalk,” said Mike Sampson, general manager of the Hard Rock casino. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

Hard Rock lost its popular beach bar to repeated winter storms.

“It was totally destroyed,” Sampson said. “Parts of it washed out to sea; debris remained on the beach and had to be disposed of.”

He said Hard Rock is hopeful it can still rent out beach cabanas and umbrellas this summer, albeit on a smaller beach.

Sampson said that “unless someone can intervene, it’s probably going to be a post-summer fill.”

Anything that might make people less likely to come to Atlantic City is bad news for the gambling resort, which still has not recovered from the COVID-19 outbreak. Only three of the nine casinos are winning more money from in-person gamblers than they did in 2019 before the pandemic hit.

And while internet gambling and sports betting has added new revenue streams to the equation, that money must be shared with partners such as tech platforms and sports books, and is not solely for the casinos to keep. That is why the casinos consider money won from in-person gamblers to be their core business — and why they need usable beaches.

Last summer, the Ocean Casino spent $600,000 to truck in and dump sand on its beach, which was not in as bad a shape as it is this year.

“How do you run a beach resort without a beach?” asked Bill Callahan, Ocean’s general manager. “It’s a tough pill to swallow.”

And an expensive one: that sand quickly washed away, and even less is left there now. At high tide, the ocean waves lap up against the dune, which itself is badly eroded.

“By the end of summer, all that sand was gone,” said Ian Jerome, project director for Ocean’s effort last year. “That is not a sustainable option.”

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Of the dozen beach entrances spanning the three casinos, only two are accessible, he said. The rest just dead-end in mid-air, with treacherous drop-offs that could cause serious injury — or worse — should anyone fall from them.

Atlantic City last received beach replenishment in 2020, and was due for additional sand last summer. But Congress failed to approve funding for the project then.

This year, $25 million in federal funding is available toward the $30 million cost, of which the state pays a smaller percentage.

But the government contracting process does not lend itself to quick fixes. Stephen Rochette, a spokesman for the Army Corps, said a contract for the work will be put out to bid in April or May, with the work starting “sometime this summer or in the fall.”

He said the agency is aware of the tendency of Atlantic City’s northern beaches to erode at a more rapid rate than other ones, and is studying the situation to see if any engineering improvements can be added to the eventual project design.

Mark Giannantonio, president of Resorts casino and of the Casino Association of New Jersey, said the casinos want at least some of the project to be carried out in early summer — what he called a possible “beach-lite” option.

“Everyone realizes the importance of getting this sand,” he said. “The sense of urgency is real.”

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