Atlantic City's Luck Runs Out
By Tina Susman
The fortune-tellers hawk their services along the boardwalk, offering to read palms, study tarot cards and gaze into crystal balls for $5.
But for free, you can get most anyone along the seaside stretch to peer into the future, and it doesn't look pretty.
Since January, four of the city's 11 casinos have closed, announced plans to close or gone bankrupt, jettisoning jobs and eating away at revenue from visitors who, when they weren't gambling, could be found spending money in local businesses. With nearby states building up gambling industries, people are finding fewer reasons to travel to this sandy spit, where gritty streets and dilapidated homes sit in the shadows of once-glittering casinos.
"It's very disheartening," shop owner Todd Lovitz said, motioning toward the wide boardwalk, which on a glorious summer's day was hardly a hive of activity.
This is the height of the tourist season, yet Lovitz's Pier 21 T-shirt and souvenir shop had no customers. By 3 p.m., only three people had come into Tony Mitchell's psychic shop. Mesfin Hagos, who pushes one of the rolling chairs that carry tired strollers to their boardwalk destinations, had made $20 for nearly five hours of work.
Inside the Piers Shops mall overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the Gucci shop was empty except for an employee leaning on a counter, staring through the store window. Nobody was buying at the high-end beauty supply store nearby, or at the sweet shop across the corridor.
"I don't think it's going to get better. I think it's going to get worse," Mitchell said of the downturn. "This will probably be my last year here."
Atlantic City's ups and downs mirror those of the gamblers it seeks to attract. Once a bustling seaside resort, home to the Miss America Pageant and the inspiration for the game Monopoly, Atlantic City fell into disrepair as automobiles and jet travel gave East Coast visitors options to go elsewhere for beach holidays. Voters approved gambling in 1976 in hopes it would reverse the decline, and for a time it did.
By the mid-'90s, nearly 50,000 people worked in casinos in Atlantic City. That was down to 33,000 by 2011, according to David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gambling revenue in Atlantic City, which for years topped $4 billion annually, amounted to $2.8 billion last year, its lowest since 1989, said Schwartz. From 2011 to 2012, consumer spending on gambling in New Jersey fell 8 percent, according to the latest survey by the American Gaming Assn.
Officials blame monstrous storms _ Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012 _ in part for the problem, and Lovitz said media reports of dire conditions along the shore kept tourists away even after the messes were cleaned up. But he and others who make their living here say the real problem has been lack of foresight by city and state officials, who they say should have acted years ago to fend off the threat as neighboring states legalized gambling.
"There's no reason for this town to be where it is now," said Lovitz, whose family has done business on the boardwalk in various iterations for 63 years. He held up a coffee-table book showing pictures of Atlantic City as it once was, with crowds packing the boardwalk so tightly you couldn't see the wooden planks beneath their feet.
"If you have a gimmick, you can make it," said Lovitz, citing Branson, Mo., as a city that turned itself into a major tourist draw by offering musical theater. Atlantic City could do the same with country music, said Lovitz, who once had six employees in his store. Now, he has one.
Outside, Hagos sat back in his rolling chair. Up and down the boardwalk, fellow chair-pushers snoozed, chatted on cellphones, or just watched people stroll past.
"It's dead. It's done," Hagos said of boardwalk business. Years ago, he could earn $900 working on a busy summer weekend. The boardwalk was so crowded it would take an hour to push one of the giant, three-wheeled carts a few blocks, said Hagos, who has been in Atlantic City since 2001.
"But most Americans don't come here anymore," Hagos said, contrasting the city with Las Vegas, a gambling mecca but also a destination for shows, fine dining and family entertainment. "They made it from desert to green!" Hagos said, throwing his hands up in frustration. "Not here."
The latest casino to fall is Trump Plaza, which expects to close in September. Developer Donald Trump, who gave up most of his interest in the 900-room hotel and casino years ago, built it at a cost of $210 million and opened it to great fanfare in 1984. At one time, it was Atlantic City's highest-grossing casino. The lavish $2.4 billion Revel is in bankruptcy and seeking a buyer, just two years after opening. The Atlantic Club closed in January. In June, Caesars announced it would close its Showboat casino.
Officials have tried to put a positive spin on the situation. Mayor Don Guardian said last month, in response to the closure of the Showboat casino, that the changes were part of a "massive economic transition" that would diversify the economy.
"We know it is painful for those who are losing their casino jobs," he said. But Guardian said non-gaming revenues were increasing and crime was declining. "Atlantic City's best days are still ahead," he insisted.
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