Time is running out for an Atlantic City comeback

 (The Atlantic Club casino is scheduled to close in January 2014. (Cartoon by Rob Tornoe)

(The Atlantic Club casino is scheduled to close in January 2014. (Cartoon by Rob Tornoe)

Back in 2010, Chris Christie stood in front of Boardwalk Hall and declared, “Atlantic City is dying.” Thanks to the one-two punch of a grim recession and expanded competition in Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania, gambling revenues among the city’s casinos have been in a free fall since 2006, and many wondered if the industry that had propped up the town for the past 40 years was save-able.

Enter Christie’s bold five-year plan to rescue Atlantic City by turning it into “Las Vegas East,” which would have rejuvenated the city by drumming up convention business, improving transportation options and creating a crime-free tourism district where families and visitors could feel safe.

So as we enter the fourth year of Christie’s five-year plan, how is Atlantic City doing? Well, judging by recent developments, not so good. Overall, gaming revenue has shrunk 40 percent over the past six years, and The Atlantic Club will shut its doors for the last time January 13, after being sold to competitors who plan to cannibalize the beleaguered casino for parts. Many outside observers fear that Trump Plaza, the Golden Nugget and maybe even the Showboat could face the same fate.

Then you have the $2.4 billion Revel Casino Hotel, the shining new gambling mecca Christie seemed to bet the future of Atlantic City on. Despite a $260 million investment by the state, Revel filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and reports indicate Hard Rock International might buy the struggling casino, shut it down and completely renovate it. If that doesn’t happen, Revel could file for bankruptcy a second time. So much for saving Atlantic City.

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Another factor putting pressure on Atlantic City’s revival is the city’s spiraling debt from casino tax appeals. During the financial crisis, six of the town’s casinos either went through bankruptcy or restructured their debt, leading to property-tax assessments well below previous valuations. In fact, since 2008, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Atlantic City has lost a third of its tax base because of these appeals. It’s going to have to make up for that lost money somehow.

Unfortunately, like most things, Christie seems to want it both ways. It was his plan to double down on Atlantic City’s gambling monopoly in the face of increased competition in neighboring states, but when asked, he seems to be pushing responsibility on the legislature.

“There’s only one way [gambling outside of Atlantic City] can happen, and that’s if there is a constitutional amendment,” Christie told a listener on his weekly “Ask the Governor show on 101.5 FM. The only way it can happen is if the legislature does it. The Governor plays no role… in amending the state Constitution. Only the legislature and the voters play a role in that.”

That doesn’t sound like the same man who made it his personal mission, complete with a state takeover of key tourist areas, to rescue Atlantic City.

I’m not a strong advocate of gambling (too many games of Sim City under my belt), but if the state’s budget depends on gambling revenue, then you need to take on competition head on. Putting a casino in a place like the Meadowlands, or along the well-traveled NJ Turnpike, might hurt Atlantic City in the short term, but it might also help stop the bleeding the state’s gaming revenue continues to experience.

In the movie “Atlantic City,” Burt Lancaster plays a small-time gangster who would jump into the Atlantic Ocean after killing someone and come out feeling nice and clean, ready to start over. Now, unless Christie is willing to alter his failed rescue plan and initiate a bold new strategy, former Atlantic City gamblers will place their bets in Pennsylvania and New York while recalling, like Lancaster, “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then.”


Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe.

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