Friday, February 21, 2014

Requiem For Atlantic City

Atlantic City, New Jersey is a city with no future. The old seaside vacation spot is now thirty-five years into it's casino era, and it's really starting to peter out now. The casinos themselves are not generating the revenues or the profits that were always expected to grow uninterrupted forever. Now, the gambling market there is saturated, and the 'experts' say a contraction in the number of casinos will be good for the market.

Last month, the Atlantic Club, the latest incarnation of Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget from the early 1980's closed for good, unable to withstand the crushing trends that are threatening all the casinos in Atlantic City. New casinos in nearby states have taken dead aim on the lifeblood of Atlantic City, and there is precious little that the South Jersey gambling mecca can do to combat it.

I just returned from a four day trip to Atlantic City, a place I've visited with varying degrees of  regularity since 1979. While the mid-winter (and this winter especially) may not be the rosiest time to document the decline of the beachfront cluster of casinos, I am including my impressions drawn from past trips that were not in the frigid grip we find ourselves in this year.

From way back, Atlantic City found itself relying on the bus trade and coupons. With the huge North East population centers a few hours away by bus, the day trip was a natural, and the accompanying meal or cash back coupons were also a natural. This was also the hidden weakness in the entire model. Bus day trips are, by definition, only a few hours long. You have two way travel to allow for, and the ride takes up more time than is spent in the casino itself, particularly when you allow for meals, or any other activity.

Bus trips themselves are dismal and uncomfortable. Riding from the decrepit Port Authority in Manhattan to the horrific terminal in Atlantic City, (rebuilt a few years ago) was not an experience for the faint-hearted. Even private bus lines from any and all neighborhoods had the same drawbacks.

But the city itself is tired now. The town remains a poor slum with shiny towers of isolated casinos. The promises (lies) that voters were told when gambling was originally approved are unfulfilled. The city is a corrupt and unredeemed blight, and now that gambling will be encroached upon by nearby jurisdictions, there is really no hope.

The hotels and resorts themselves, never had any appeal other than to the die hard and often degenerate gambler. Atlantic City is no place to bring a family, though my wife and I often have. Summertime is really the only time that a family ought to even consider Atlantic City, with it's beach beckoning very near to many of the casinos. The amusement centers on the boardwalk, although gritty and not always safe, made for a passably good family vacation. Nearby Ocean City, NJ,  far more family friendly, is only a short drive away for an old fashioned and cleaner family diversion.

Winter is no time for the kids in Atlantic City. There are no activities to interest most kids, and particularly tweens and teens. It is a desolate wasteland and the resorts themselves have never sought to attract the family demographic. Kid friendly activities would have been an easy and natural way to attract families with parents whose proclivities tend to gambling. The cruise ships have done it for years, but Atlantic City never even tried. What a waste.

Even shows are a problem. You would think, a la Las Vegas, that the offerings of shows and entertainment would be available every night of the week. Nope. In what must be a sad chicken and egg rehash, there are no shows many nights, (particularly "off season"), so there are no people to attend them. These non-attendees also, by the way, don't gamble either. Who'da thunk it?

Now the time for Atlantic City is past. They had their window of a generation and they couldn't make it last. The next couple of decades are likely to be a sporadic but inexorable spiral into nothingness. The deadly slam of Superstorm Sandy knocked Atlantic City, and all of the North East down, and the promise of future storms is very real. Casinos in New York and Pennsylvania will all vie with Atlantic City for a share of a smaller and smaller pie.

As the middle class fights through it's own death spiral, the aging of the population also works against Atlantic City's fortunes. The younger generation has less interest in casino gambling, and many more entertainment choices. Who among them will take that Atlantic City bus ride in the numbers required to support the entire Atlantic City gambling apparatus?

When I was a small child, my father took my brother and me on a trip to Atlantic City. This was before the advent of casino gambling there, but it was the memory my father had of going to the beach there as a kid that he shared with me and my brother.

My kids will have a very different memory of Atlantic City, of fancy hotels and casinos and all the glitz of the skyline, all of the fine casinos twinkling and growing as we approached the city.

I wonder how my kids will pass along to their children their memories of Atlantic City? What will be left there to enjoy in the next thirty years?  

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