Turning-point summer for Atlantic City casinos

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Atlantic City began the year with 12 casinos. By the end of September, the iconic gambling mecca could have as few as eight gaming halls, leaving it at a turning point with workers, boosters and gamblers wondering what’s next.

Bettie and Tom Stine have been visiting Atlantic City to gamble since it was first legal in the 1970s.  They used to go to the Atlantic Club, until it closed in January. On a recent visit they played at the Showboat Casino, which announced this month that it would close Aug. 31.

“She likes the [poker] tables,” said Tom Stine. “I Iike the tables, but I like to sneak away and play craps sometimes.”

But Bettie said the casinos aren’t like the used to be back then, when Atlantic City had a monopoly on East Coast gambling.

“When first opened up, it was unbelievably packed,” she said. “You couldn’t — you had to wait to get a slot. There were lines.”

Today, the Stines and others widely agree, the casinos aren’t doing the business they once did. Besides the Showboat, Trump Plaza recently announced plans to close in September. Atlantic City’s newest addition, Revel, is in its second bankruptcy.

“Gaming revenues  in Atlantic City have declined about 46 percent  from the peak in 2006,” said Peggy Holloway, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, who analyzes the casino industry.  “The decline in Atlantic City predated the recession. It was really a function of a lack of re-investment in the properties themselves and then the advent of gaming in the contiguous states.”

Now, when the Stines drive to Atlantic City, they pass billboards advertising two Pennsylvania casinos in their own backyard that opened in the last ten years. New York has new gaming spots. So do Maryland and Delaware.

Even a guy whose job is to be an Atlantic City booster, Jeff Guaracino of the Atlantic City Alliance, will frankly say that there’s a glut of gambling opportunities in and around Atlantic City. Though, he also says the town’s trying to reinvent itself around all the other amenities that were built up for the casinos.

“Atlantic City is blessed in that we have the resources and the beach, the boardwalk, the retail, the hotels, which are as quickly as possible transforming itself into a new kind of travel economy,” Guaracino said.

While revenues from tourism and conventions are approaching $1 billion a year, that’s still a lot less than the $5 billion in revenue the casinos made at their peak. Online gambling, allowing people in New Jersey to play without going to Atlantic City, has had a negligible impact, according to Holloway.

The growth isn’t enough to absorb the 8,000 employees projected to lose their jobs this year. The president of the casino workers’ union, Bob McDevitt worked at Showboat for nine years himself. He’s trying to connect with buyers to keep the threatened casinos open.

“Closing a casino or casinos at this point when we’re just starting to turn the market around is a mistake,” he warned.

While Showboat’s trending downwards, McDevitt argues it’s still making a profit and could attract a buyer. Then there’s the bankrupt casino up for auction in August — Revel.  Its glass tower represents more than a $2 billion investment that has struggled to attract customers in its two years.

Maria Sanchez works there part time as a dealer, mostly blackjack and poker. Despite the glut of bad news for the local casinos, says she’s optimistic the job she loves will be saved.

“Revel is not going to close. I have a feeling it’s not,” Sanchez said. “I have a feeling somebody’s going to buy it because it’s too beautiful.”

Maybe looks will help Revel beat the odds, but gambling revenues are slowing throughout the wider region. And so, what’s happening in Atlantic City is looking like a cautionary tale.

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