Atlantic City reinvents itself as Vegas East
Faced with competition, resort town embarks on biggest building boom in 24 years. But will it work?
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.
When people say you can't miss the new casino in town, they're not kidding. Rising like twin stacks of King Midas' treasure, the $1 billion gold-plated Borgata lords over the marina, the city, and, it would seem, the fortunes of the Eastern seaboard. And it won't even be finished for a year.Skip to next paragraph
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In a city lavished with architectural and financial excess, the brio of the project suggests a city staking claim as the East Coast's gambling mecca.
Yet Atlantic City's future is far from certain. Faced with growing competition from casinos on Indian lands and other gaming ventures, the city is undertaking the biggest building boom in 24 years in a quest to reinvent itself.
Concerned about its fusty image as the kingdom of the 25-cent slot player, Atlantic City's magnates want to grab a younger and wealthier clientele in search of fine dining, music, lavish hotels, and shopping. In short: They want to transform the low-heeled Boardwalk into the stiletto-pump Las Vegas Strip.
Yet the move will test whether a city that has tied its economy almost exclusively to gambling can thrive in an era when slot machines and lotteries are becoming ubiquitous nationwide.
"Atlantic City needs to be careful," says James Whelan, the recently departed mayor here. "We have been through these ... new-wave promises."
The building boom is certainly a formidable one. Besides the ornate Borgata, the state of New Jersey has approved $800 million in casino projects 12,000 new hotel rooms, restaurants, and several gaudy retail and outlet shopping centers. This includes a renovated Monopoly-themed mall called Park Place.
Developers are building because competition is building. Casinos have been proposed for the nearby Catskills in New York State. More could be built in Pennsylvania. And the promise of tax dollars in a hopeless economy is fueling gambling initiatives in several states including Tennessee, Nebraska, Arizona, and Idaho. At least two dozen other states are debating proposals from slot machines to lotteries in the next year.
Anti-betting partisans worry that every state will believe, like many people do in New Jersey, that gambling will rescue their state from fiscal collapse. "Atlantic City is a disastrous model," says Thomas Grey of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. "Everyone who goes to Atlantic City sees billion-dollar palaces. Atlantic City has not benefited."
Yet casino owners here believed they had to do something. The town's 12 casinos had already lost a chunk of business in the 1990s, when a native American tribe began spinning roulette at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. Delaware answered with slot machines.
For the owners, the answer is to go more upscale. "I think Atlantic City is starving for something new and fresh," says Timothy Wilmott, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey. "It's a $4.3 billion gaming market. If Atlantic City can grow to be a $5 billion gaming market, it will be a success."
The key, they say, is getting more gamblers to stay longer. "One of the basic problems we have in Atlantic City is that it's room shy you can't get a room in the summer," says John Burke, treasurer of Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts. "That's why the Borgata is so important."