Atlantic City Seeks Life Beyond Gambling
Fifteen years after Atlantic City residents voted in favor of casino gambling, the resort city is still struggling. Redevelopment is now focused on a state-of-the-art convention center and non-casino hotel.
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.
IT'S a picture of urban America at its worst: vacant blocks cleared away three decades ago for urban renewal that never happened sitting next to rows of abandoned, decaying tenements.Skip to next paragraph
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But Atlantic City Mayor James Whelan is unfazed as he gives a visitor a tour of the Inlet section of his city.
``We're going to have a major mall here with an indoor amusement park,'' says Mr. Whelan as he points to a block-square vacant lot. ``It will be a major entertainment center that will attract families to visit Atlantic City.''
This vision of an again-booming Atlantic City convinced voters in 1976 that casino gambling was the answer for this dying resort city. But 15 years after the advent of casino gambling, Atlantic City is scene after scene of jarring contrasts. Slums by the sea sit next to shiny glass-and-steel casino towers. Drug dealers and winos congregate on one corner; just a block away, ladies in mink enter a casino hotel.
Despite all this, the mayor is optimistic. After a decade of inaction - during which state, local, and casino officials squabbled about how money earmarked for Atlantic City redevelopment should be spent - all sides have reached agreement.
The state has agreed to spend $1.5 billion to renovate the Atlantic City airport, build a $254 million state-of-the-art convention center, and provide partial financing for a high-rise noncasino hotel and an entertainment-and-shopping complex to be built on an elevated boardwalk.
New revenue for city
When voters approved casino gambling, the goal was not only to revive this tattered ocean-front resort but also to provide new revenue for New Jersey's programs for education, seniors, and the disabled. All three groups have clearly benefited. New Jersey has realized $2.4 billion from gambling taxes in the last 15 years for those groups. In addition, Atlantic City has received $467 million for municipal services and $600 million for new housing and other improvement projects. Casinos have created 40,000 new jobs and 30,000 in related industries.
Yet in this small city of 37,000 residents, 40 percent of the children are raised in poverty. Atlantic City's unemployment rate is 16.4 percent, and a quarter of the city's small businesses have closed in the last 15 years because casino customers rarely venture into the city's decaying commercial shopping district.
Many of the new jobs have gone to residents of suburban communities near Atlantic City, where dozens of condominium developments, new-home communities, and tract shopping centers have sprung up since the first casino opened in 1978.
The problem, Whelan says, is that people expected miracles with the introduction of casino gambling. ``Real life doesn't work that way'' he says. ``It was unrealistic to think that casinos would overnight cure problems that had been festering for decades.''
Whelan says Atlantic City is no different than other urban centers that have been unable to lick problems such as poverty, crime and drug abuse. ``The tale of two cities that has been written about Atlantic City could be written about any other city,'' he says.
But Steve Perskie, chairman of the Casino Control Commission, says state government is partly to blame for the sad shape of the city. ``We wasted a decade,'' he says, blaming the state's standoff attitude in the 1980s.
Previous casino regulators took the stance that market forces would cause development outside the casinos to happen, Mr. Perskie says. ``People thought the road to a new Atlantic City would be paved with gold,'' he says. ``All we won was the opportunity to do a lot of hard work.''
Jackie Shepard, a lifelong Atlantic City resident who works as a maintenance superintendent in an apartment building, wonders if that hard work means a place for him in Atlantic City's future.
``The grand plan is to drive the poor and middle class out and make this place like Disneyland,'' he says, voicing a common concern among the city's black majority.
Mr. Shepard says the casinos have driven up rents, forcing many residents out of the city. His modest two-bedroom apartment costs $780 a month, having tripled in a decade.