Almost a year after the vote that was to transform a crumbling resort one supporter calls "Newark-by-the-sea" into the butterfly of East Coast playgrounds, America's living Monopoly board still isn't much past "Go."
The talk along the boardwalk and in the offices on Atlantic Avenue is of giant new hotels, elegant restaurants, new shops for Gucci, Cartier and Harry Winston, and high-rolling customers who will be drawn here by the engine of all these dreams - legalized casino gambling.
But look in any direction now and still all you will see are blinking red neon vacancy signs, the kind of bars in which customers crane their necks when the day's winning lottery number is flashed on the television screen, and derelict hotels.
A conventioneer from Davenport, Iowa, sipped his drink last week and remarked: "We've got more to do at home than they've got here."
Businessmen and politicians say the reasons for the slow start of Atlantic City's comeback began with the banks and insurance companies, the traditional sources of financing for large-scale building developments. These institutions have been reluctant to finance gambling ventures. The next fact pointed to is the time-consuming, complicated procedures that have been established in an attempt to keep the casinos clean - free of the influence of organized crime or other unsavory elements. Then there is the miscellany of fears ranging from street crime to traffic jams.
But no fear is bigger here than that of losing the tourist business that once more seems within Atlantic City's grasp.
After New Jersey passed a referendum last November permitting casino gambling in this city, making it the only potential rival to Nevada in the United States. Monopoly, whose playing board uses the names of Atlantic City streets, became the perfect metaphor for the city. Some of the magic that people must have seen when they developed this island city 123 years ago along the lovely beaches returned and real estate speculation became frenzied with prices for houses doubling and tripling while investors no longer saw the giant decrepit hotels along the boardwalk as white elephants, but as sites for new palaces of pleasure.
Resorts International, the Bally Manufacturing Corp., Playboy, Inc., caesar's World, Inc., and other outside corporations proposed plans for giant casino-hotel complexes and Atlantic City looked forward to drawing back travelers who had been taking opportunities airlines offer to spend their money in the Caribbean, in Florida, in Las Vegas - anywhere but here.
Real estate speculation, however, has remained the only flourishing game in town.
Resorts International has begun renovation of the Chalfonte-Haddon Hotel, a massive brick fortress at North Carolina Avenue and the boardwalk. There is no other construction work under way.
New Jersey's banks aren't big enough to provide all the mortgage money needed for the $50 million and more each huge casino-hotel of the kind required by New Jersey's new law would cost to construct. However, developers want seed money from local banks or insurance companies so they can go to bigger institutions in New York or elsewhere and not be forced to say, "Our own banks won't touch us."
Banks and insurance companies are holding off both because they have questions about the economics of the giant projects and because they don't like the gambling image.
New Jersey's gambling law was carefully drawn to prevent entrepreneurs from opening up small casinos at little cost everywhere from Albany Avenue (not on the Monopoly board) to Connecticut Avenue.
"The question was whether we wanted a gambling city or a resort that had gambling," Atlantic City's New Jersey assemblyman Steven Perskie said.
It is still an open question. No one doubts that 500-room and larger casinos will open here sometime even if for several years there are only one or two. To realize the dream of Atlantic City's planners, however, a massive rebuilding of this shabby city far beyond what would flow from a couple of casinos is necessary.
Atlantic City politicians and businessmen maintain the Atlantic City to be reborn from today's ashes will offer much more than gambling. After all, doesn't Atlantic City have the nation's largest convention center, with 523,000 square feet, and don't a quarter of the nation's people live within a three-hour drive?
Gerard Kauper, executive director of the Atlantic City convention bureau can tick off such facts.
He also knows that the average conventioneer spends $200 during the typical 3-3 day stay.
Atlantic City has booked $75 million worth of conventions for the years 1978-83 and has $500 million more through 1986 within its grasp, contingent on the necessary new, first-class hotels with their minimums of 25,000 square feet of convention space. These are the same hotels that will only be built if they are attached to casinos.
"We are losing business," Kauper says. "They tell us they can't wait." Planners for large conventions always choose their sites five to seven years in advance.
Even before the first dice bounce on green felt here, there is fear that other jurisdictions will dose themselves with the same medicine with which Atlantic City is trying to restore its economic health.
The New York legislature is expected to consider a bill that would allow casino gambling. Edward Koch, the favorite to become New York City's next mayor, has said he would not oppose properly controlled casino gambling in Manhattan.
The only fear here that approaches that of losing business is that of opening up the town to organized crime.
The very words "New Jersey" were almost synonymous with scandal for years, but over the past decade the state has begun to take pride in its marked success prosecuting the Mob and corrupt politicians.
Thus, the state law provides for careful screening of all applicants for casinos and a new division of the state justice department has been established to work with an appointed five-person casino control commission to see that casinos go to "the right people."
Resorts International and the Bally Corp. present immediate problems. Although both are publicly owned companies, they have been linked on occasion to organized crime figures.
A brother of an aide to Mob figure Meyer Lanksy was Resort International's casino manager at Paradise Island in the Bahamas for some time. The oft-investigated Resorts International has a background that one witness described to a congressional committee as "misty, shadows."
Gerardo Cateno, who has been identified in testimony to a U.S. Senate committee as an East Coast Mafia figure, was one of the financiers who formed Bally in the early 1960s.
Although Catena was bought out of Bally after allegations against him surfaced, in 1975 and 1976 the Nevada gaming commission ordered three Bally officials to leave the company because of alleged connections with Catena and organized crime.
Once the casinos open, no one doubts they will make huge profits or that they will draw criminals as well as holiday makers to the boardwalk.
The Mafia watch established by local and state officials has detected an apparent move by Philadelphia's Angelo Bruno to capture the cigarette vending machine business here and an approach by a man named Emanuel Gambino to buy a hotel. Gambino complained bitterly when called to testify before the State Commission of Investigation: "Everybody named Gambino is guilty of something. If my name was Jenes or Smith I wouldn't even be there today."
Atlantic County prosecutor Richard Williams said there was evidence of other organized crime efforts to take over businesses. This evidence is being investigated, he said.
Williams added that the Philadelphia Roofers Union, Local 30, has recently taken over the Atlantic City Roofers and there are signs that another union not known for its gentle approach to problems, Anthony (Tony Pro) Provenzano's New Jersey teamsters, has become newly active in the area.
Almost all officials express confidence that the casino gaming law will keep the casinos reasonably, if not completely, clean. Concern about organized crime focuses on ancillary businesses like bars and nightclubs and the supply services for the casinos like laundry and foodstuffs.
The casino control commission can reach some of these problems under the state law, but some believe that the panel headed by former Essex County prosecutor Joseph Lordi, will be subject to political pressures. "Every one of them was appointed with a political purpose," a knowledgeable source said of the five commissioners.
Beyond problems with organized crime, Atlantic City officials expect a rise in street crime.
A lot of affluent potential gamblers live within an easy drive of the resort and so do a lot of criminals who now work the streets of New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.
A newly booming Atlantic City would also quicky choke on its traffic. No scheduled airlines fly to Atlantic City yet, although officials are hoping several will begin regular service next year. Almost every visitor arrives by car.
On summer weekends the streets perpendicular to the sea, which all dead-end at the boardwalk, become snarled and there are few convenient places to park.
These are all manageable problems, Atlantic City officials say, but, whether they are solved satisfactorily or not, it appears that local people, including politicians, will have less and less control over events.
Atlantic City has been a very small pond for years, but the corporations now talking of bringing their money here are going to bring a new way of doing business.
In 1974, the state's voters defeated a referendum to legalize gambling casinos throughout New Jersey by 3 to 2. Some suggest the 1976 referendum passed because it concerned only Atlantic City and mainlanders (Atlantic City is an island) don't care what happens there.
It was never the resort of high society, but rather what a Baedeker of the turn of the century described as people who have "money in abundance without being vastly rich and . . . come to Atlantic City because it so exactly suits their barbarous ideas of what is fine."
Soon, if it suits them, people can come to gamble.