Atlantic City Still Awaits Its Jackpot

New mayor calls for cooperation to solve city's troubles and prevent threatened state takeover

JAMES WHELAN acknowledges the heavy burden on his administration: He must pull Atlantic City through some tough times, or he could be the city's final mayor. ``This is our last chance,'' he says. ``The state is ready to move in and take us over.''

The advent of casino gambling 12 years ago was supposed to reinvigorate Atlantic City's sagging economy. But corruption and continuing economic woes have prompted state legislators to call for a state takeover of this gambling-dependent city. For the moment, the action is on hold, a key state legislator says, to give the new mayor a chance.

Four of Atlantic City's last six mayors have been indicted on corruption charges. Three have gone to jail.

Atlantic City's last mayor, James Usry (R), has been charged with taking bribes in July 1989. He is accused of taking $6,000 from an undercover agent to let electric passenger cars run along the Boardwalk.

In the June election, Mr. Whelan, a Democrat, beat Mr. Usry, Atlantic City's first black mayor, after a bitter contest that mirrored the racial division in this city of 37,000 residents. Whelan was inaugurated July 2.

In the last 12 years, casino developers built 12 towers of glitz and glass, creating 50,000 new jobs and generating more than $2 billion in state tax revenue.

But two blocks from these imposing structures, dilapidated row houses abut garbage-strewn vacant lots in some of the worst slums in the United States.

The city's crime rate has soared since legalized gambling was introduced and is now New Jersey's highest. Drugs are sold openly on many streets.

Homeless people seem to be everywhere. The city has no movie theaters, no car washes, and just one supermarket.

Atlantic City's suburbs have fared much better, as the influx of thousands of casino workers has led to an economic boom.

But casino gambling has not helped this decaying city turn around, as gambling's promoters had said it would.

In the past, the casino owners have blamed local government for not improving the city's lot. City officials have blamed the casinos. And everyone has blamed the state. While tempers and voices rose, nothing got done.

Now, Whelan says, everyone must work together for the betterment of Atlantic City: ``We can't have divisiveness anymore.''

Whelan says for the first time Atlantic city is borrowing management expertise from the more successful casinos to make city government more efficient.

He notes that several casino computer executives have volunteered their time to help the city improve its computer system.

``They have an expertise and they have agreed to share it with us. This is just one area where we can cooperate,'' Whelan says.

The mayor adds that one of his first tasks will be hiring professional managers. ``In the past the department directors were right out of the political clubhouse,'' he says. ``We cannot tolerate this kind of political patronage anymore. I am making a national search for the right people who can lead this city.''

To succeed, Whelan must stop the steady departure of middle-class residents from Atlantic City - residents like Marie Hamlott.

``I've lived in Atlantic City for 37 years,'' says Ms. Hamlott, a casino cafeteria worker who rents a apartment in one of the better-kept row houses in the city's run-down Inlet section.

``We're were always a poor city,'' she says. ``But we had pride. Now things are out of control. The drug-dealing happens right in front of my apartment. There's noise at all hours. I've saved enough money over the years to buy a house. But I wouldn't buy in this dumpy city. I'm going to the suburbs.''

Whelan says he will be putting a high priority on improving the quality of life: ``Over the last few years Atlantic City has built some of the first new housing for its residents with casino revenue.

``But we can't just build housing without making things better for residents. We need to do things like implementing a night curfew for teenagers. And putting an ordinance on the books that will prevent teenagers from loudly playing their boom-boxes. Sure we have to go after the drug dealers. But little things can also make the difference.''

Whelan says he realizes his tenure comes when there is concern that time is running out for Atlantic City's casino gambling experiment.

Casino revenues have been faltering. Last year one casino went bankrupt and four others operated in the red, and the opening of Donald Trump's $1 billion-dollar Taj Mahal casino has increased concern.

Some worry the Taj Mahal won't be able to take in the minimum $1 million-a-day minimum needed to keep the hotel in the black.

Others say if the Taj Majal succeeds, it will divert business from Atlantic City's 11 other casinos.

``The average tourist spends eight hours in Atlantic city in a casino and leaves,'' Whelan says. ``Many of them don't even go out on our streets. We have to make this city an attractive place so that the tourist is going to want to stay here for several days just like in Las Vegas.''

While conceding that massive change won't happen overnight, Whelan, a former Atlantic City public schools swimming coach, says he is determined to turn around this seaside city.

Whelan says Atlantic City can overcome its challenges because it is a small city. ``We only have 37,000 residents,'' he says. ``We have urban problems such as drugs and the homeless like other cities. But because of our small size the problems are more manageable here.''

Continues the mayor; ``I believe good government can make a difference. ''

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