A state takeover of Atlantic City's gambling mess is not the answer

A skyline view of Atlantic City's casinos from the boardwalk.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would like to save Atlantic City’s decaying gambling district by having the state take it over.

Atlantic City needs help, no question. The city’s unemployment rate is 50 percent higher than the national average. A quarter of the housing units in the city stand vacant. The casinos, many running red ink, are shedding jobs by the thousands. The abandoned $1.2 billion Revel Casino Hotel Resort stands unfinished and empty, a glass-paned eyesore now a tribute to a gambling dream gone bust.

But anyone who’s watched Atlantic City’s experiment in state-sanctioned gambling on the Jersey coast over the years knows it never brought the vibrant, healthy city that was hoped for. Just beyond the glitz of the shiny casinos sit streets with decrepit housing and ridden with crime.

What the state is missing in this sluggish economy is the significant tax revenue that the gambling halls once shipped its way. That money have plummeted, from more than $500 million a few years back to a projected $275 million this year. Clearly the recession and the slow economic recovery have hurt. But something else has changed that alters the long-term outlook.

It’s called competition. Nearby Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Connecticut have opened their own state-sanctioned gambling meccas, keeping gamblers in those states at home. Maryland will join them this fall. Massachusetts may be close behind. Atlantic City can no longer imagine that one day it might stand alone as Las Vegas East.

Gambling is a “zero sum” game, as these Northeastern states are going to come to realize as a plethora of casinos try to steal each other’s customers. It doesn’t create wealth, it merely shifts it around, often taking from the poor who can least afford it.

Studies show that the costs to tax-payers and local governments associated with gambling are at least $3 for every $1 in benefits.

Nor is there popular support for a state bailout. Some 48 percent of state residents oppose New Jersey taking over Atlantic City’s “gaming district,” a recent survey found. Only 38 percent approve.

And a strong majority, 56 percent, say they’d like gambling to be confined to Atlantic City and not spread to their own cities and towns. They’ve seen what it’s done there and want no part of it.

Atlantic City has already doubled down on gambling and lost. It’s time for fresh approaches to reviving the city, established on a sturdier basis than the ephemeral lure of gambling.

The state government will make a mistake if it tries to sink public resources into propping up this losing proposition.

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