While Governor Chris Christie has his mind set on being president, one of the most important cities in his state, Atlantic City, is dying a very slow death. New Jersey has its fair share of cities that teeter on the brink of financial disaster. Trenton, Newark, and Camden have needed state assistance to deal with social issues, racial unrest, and unemployment through the years. But Atlantic City isn’t supposed to be on that list. Atlantic City was the gambling capital of the East Coast. It’s the home of several mighty casinos and the world-famous boardwalk called “Steel Pier.” But something changed in this formidable beach city, and now the casinos are at the mercy of Governor Chris Christie.
Republican Governor Christie has been battling the state’s Democratic lawmakers for the last several years. Christie has embarrassed himself and his state on several occasions, but he continues to do state business his way, and his approval rating has dropped to single-digits in New Jersey because of what some people call “narcissistic governing.” The Atlantic City Casino Commission wants Christie to sign a rescue bill that passed the State House back in June. The bill gives the casinos a property tax break for the next 15 years. The casinos would pay the state $150 million over the next two years and then $120 million every year if casino revenues stay healthy. If the governor doesn’t sign the bill, the local taxpayers will be burden with paying the taxes.
But the story of Chris Christie dragging his feet on signing the 5-bill rescue package didn’t start with the closing of 4 of the 12 casinos in Atlantic City. The real story of AC’s fall from gambling grace started when the first casino opened back in 1978. The citizens of New Jersey wanted legalized gambling back then, and Atlantic City was desperate for a facelift. Thousands of people gather on the boardwalk, and most of them had money to burn. Gambling had finally made its way out of Las Vegas and East Coast gamblers couldn’t wait to test their skills against the first big player, Resorts International Casino. The people of New Jersey were convinced that gambling would bring the state the attention it so desperately needed. Hiding in the shadow of New York has always been a thorn in the minds of New Jerseyites.
The people of the state were right. For years, Atlantic City was a winning bet. New Jersey was finally out of the shadows. Jersey was a real state with a real “big city.” But then something happened. About two years ago, casinos started to close. Trump Plaza, the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel, Revel AC and Showboat Atlantic City closed the front doors, and 8,000 people were suddenly out of work. Three of the four casinos went through bankruptcy proceedings. The city went from a state money-producer to a state money moocher. The diehard gamblers wanted to know what happened, and so did the casinos.
According to some of the people in New Jersey, the casinos created the problem. Once Pennsylvania got casino licenses in 2006, the handwriting was on the wall. Today, Pennsylvania is second to Las Vegas in gambling revenue. New Yorkers and Philly people wanted to go to Atlantic City to gamble when Pennsylvania and other states weren’t in the picture. But once Foxwood Resorts and Mohegan Sun opened in Connecticut, and New York, New York and Philly gamblers found closer gambling foes to battle.
But the fact that gambling became legal in other East Coast states wasn’t the main reason Atlantic City is now begging for help. The main reason is the casinos forgot to build their castle so visitors could enjoy the natural beauty of the old shore community. Casinos didn’t make their hotels beach friendly, and the city didn’t make it easy for visitors to get there. Plus the weather played a role in the city’s demise. Atlantic City is not a year-round destination, and the casinos did nothing to correct that issue.
Atlantic City has another issue that helped create this perfect gambling disaster. The casinos were built in two sections of the city. The boardwalk area along the beach, and the marina area that is north of downtown. The casinos on the boardwalk separate the city from the beach and oceanfront. That separation didn’t make the boardwalk hotels family friendly. Direct access to the beach was cut-off. Families would have to walk through the casino to gain access to the beach and visitors with kids, and that didn’t gamble much hated that trip. The casinos that closed were all Boardwalk properties. The Marina casinos are still doing well because there is direct highway access to them, and the properties conform to the area.
So Atlantic City’s financial issues were self-inflicted. In the quest to add casinos to every state in America, the gambling industry seriously wounded one of its prize money makers. In order to get Atlantic City up and running as a mini East Coast Las Vegas in 1978, the casinos failed to lay out their properties in a way that complimented the main local attractions like the ocean, the beach and the boardwalk. And because Atlantic City is not that car friendly, visitors had a hard time not only getting to the city but also getting around the city.
Now, the casinos are kneeling at the feet of Chris Christie, and the executives know that’s not a position of power. If Christie signs the bill, the casino execs know there will be other issues to deal with, and the casino commission has plans to correct them. But the great Atlantic City will never be an East Coast Las Vegas again. That ship sailed when Chris Christie became governor.