Christie’s ‘game changer’ Revel closes doors amid casino ruin in Atlantic City

September 2, 2014
The chains are up at the Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City. The $2.4 billion casino is now closed, one of four casinos to be dealt their finals hands in Atlantic City this year. (Reuters)

ATLANTIC CITY – Revel Casino Hotel, labeled a “game changer” by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) when it opened in April 2012, closed early Tuesday morning as part of an economic implosion in this historic city’s gambling industry.

Originally expected to be the crown jewel of casino redevelopment shepherded by the pugnacious governor and 2016 presidential hopeful, Revel instead now stands on the north end of the boardwalk as the shining $2.4 billion face of failure for this down-on-its-luck city. Its closure, at 6 a.m. Tuesday, came a day after its casino neighbor Showboat shuttered, with almost 5,000 jobs disappearing within 24 hours.

Later Tuesday morning, state regulators gave the final go-ahead for the closure of Trump Plaza on Sept. 16, another body blow to Christie’s hopes for reshaping Atlantic City into a Las Vegas-style destination resort with higher-end casinos lining the boardwalk and across the marina on the western end of town. Stung by the industry implosion here, Christie has called a bipartisan summit Monday to discuss a way forward for the industry and the city’s economic future.

Many of the issues at play are endemic to the local economy and broader national trends – the great recession drastically cut gambling receipts and the massive expansion of casinos in neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware cut the number of visitors.

The city’s gambling receipts hit $5.2 billion in 2006, about the same as Las Vegas, but this year those receipts will be about half that level, according to William J. Pascrell III, a lobbyist representing gambling interests.

“Revel is not the problem, Revel revealed the underlying problem,” said Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, the labor union with about 9,000 members who work in casinos here.

For Christie, however, Revel’s closure is a particular embarrassment. Two and a half years ago, the governor hailed the newest addition to the boardwalk as a “turning point” for the city. When initial investors bailed, his administration guaranteed $261 million in tax incentives. At its opening, Christie even made a plea for his state’s favorite son, Bruce Springsteen, to play a concert at Revel.

Instead, by late Monday night, the casino had taken on the appearance of the rock star’s ballad “Atlantic City,” in which the characters search for jobs and consider crime as a way out: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” Still impeccably clean, the casino floor had a post-apocalyptic feel to it.

Dozens and dozens of slot machines were empty. Blackjack tables were roped off. Workers from other portions of the casino, already off their jobs, huddled around “The Social,” the circular bar at the center of the floor. Drinks were set at $5 for anything, except bartenders had already run out of most high-end liquors.

Some workers clung to the hope that the casino would reemerge from bankruptcy proceedings a financially leaner property and become attractive to a potential buyer, perhaps clinging to the other end of Springsteen’s warning about the city: “But maybe everything that dies, some day comes back.”

Others shrugged off that as naïve talk, suggesting it would take a lot of patience to turn the property and the entire city around.

“He gave it $260 million for this place to open. This place was obviously nothing good,” said Jean Smith, a cabdriver lined up outside the casino six hours before it closed.

Christie’s advisers have battled the perception that taxpayer money went to the project. Actually, the deal was structured in a manner that the tax benefits accrued only when the new casino turned a profit — which it never did.

“To be clear, Revel has not received one penny of its (tax) award,” the state Economic Development Authority wrote in a report.

Still, that’s little comfort to the roughly 2,900 employees from Revel who lost their jobs over the weekend.

The casino industry’s downturn happened as most of the rest of the Jersey Shore finished up a banner summer, with revenue expected to be up by 4 percent over last year, less than two years removed from “Sandy,” the superstorm that ravaged the beaches and turned the governor into a national figure during the recovery.

“There’s only one Jersey shore. We’ve all learned that, not only before, but the whole world has learned it over the last nearly two years,” Christie said during a triumphant pre-Labor Day weekend speech.

Yet there is only one Atlantic City, and Christie’s administration and local leaders are still searching for the solution to this 44-block town’s woes.

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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