Atlantic City’s existential bet isn’t about gambling

With two new casinos, it hopes for revival as a millennial playground. But survival depends on shows, spas and clubs, not chips and cards.

Atlantic City’s existential bet isn’t about gambling

With two new casinos, it hopes for revival as a millennial playground. But survival depends on shows, spas and clubs, not chips and cards.
Photos by Michael S. Williamson

This seaside city has been on a decades-long losing streak: shuttered casinos, a state takeover, a high poverty rate, a labor strike and a planned comeback that went bust. But hope springs eternal in a place that runs on luck, and Atlantic City is trying to reinvent itself again.

Two new casinos filled with non-gambling attractions, including shows and nightclubs, are scheduled to open within weeks. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey’s favor this month, legalizing sports betting nationwide and giving the green light to open sports books here for the first time. A new beach bar festooned with palm trees and a biergarten with lawn games welcomed visitors for Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start of summer here. Two new corporate offices and a university are moving in.

“Four years ago, people were counting the city out. It was about to be washed out to the Atlantic Ocean. . . . Now I’m cutting five ribbons in one year,” said Mayor Frank Gilliam. “I’ve seen the best of times here. I’ve seen the worst of times here. I can assure you I’ve never seen times like this.”

The $2.4 billion Revel Casino was a massive failure and closed in 2014. It will reopen next month as the Ocean Resort Casino. One challenge for the city is how to revitalize the vacant lots and decrepit buildings that are within walking distance of the Boardwalk and beach.
Frank Gilliam was sworn in as the mayor of Atlantic City earlier this year. He said he's optimistic about the city's future.

Four decades after gambling first transformed this oceanside resort, the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and the Ocean Resort Casino are both slated to debut on June 28, the first time two casinos will open here on the same day. The venues are following a trend that has dominated the gaming industry but has been elusive here: making themselves as much about entertainment as gambling.

Atlantic City’s casinos have long hoped to move away from the city’s typical clientele — senior citizens who arrive on packed buses — toward young people more interested in hitting a nightclub, splurging on a meal or spending a day at the spa than putting their paychecks on the line at a craps table. At the Hard Rock, Carrie Underwood and Pitbull are scheduled to perform on opening weekend, while Ocean Resort will offer a driving range and large spa, its property newly embracing the beachfront.

[States are free to authorize sports betting, Supreme Court rules]

“Younger people . . . aren’t looking to make gambling their primary motive of going to a particular destination or resort,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University.

Despite the building boom, Atlantic City faces significant hurdles on the road to economic recovery. Unlike its bigger sister in Nevada, it is a frigid wasteland for a significant stretch of the year, the Boardwalk whipped with ocean wind and the litter-strewn beach unbearable. While its monolithic properties aim to transform the oceanfront, many visitors find it difficult to entertain themselves during the day.

Darrell and Darnell Blevins were walking around on a recent rainy Wednesday afternoon, twins up from Baltimore up to celebrate their 29th birthday. They and their friends were aimless and restless: They wanted to sit by a pool or hang out at a day club or really do anything besides sitting inside a casino.

“Where can you go at 2 in the afternoon to find a good time?” Darrell Blevins asked.

Joan Carnan, 84, plays video poker at the Tropicana Casino and Resort in Atlantic City. She does not miss the days when her hands would get black from handling coins, but she also says casinos should not just be geared toward young people.
The Showboat was one of four Atlantic City casinos to close in 2014. Still operating as a hotel, its gaming floor is now repurposed; Patrick McBride works on a horror exhibit for a convention.
A lobby entrance to the Showboat complex is often eerily quiet now that the hotel does not offer gambling. It attracts customers with meeting space where slots once stood.
TOP: Joan Carnan, 84, plays video poker at the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City. She doesn't miss the days when her hands would get black from handling coins, but she also says casinos should not just be geared to young people. LEFT: The Showboat was one of four Atlantic City casinos to close in 2014. Still operating as a hotel, its gaming floor is now repurposed; Patrick McBride works on a horror exhibit for a convention. RIGHT: A lobby entrance to the Showboat complex is often eerily quiet since the hotel doesn't offer gambling anymore. It attracts customers by offering meeting space where slots once stood.

Atlantic City first made a name for itself by flouting prohibition in the 1920s and ’30s, but then booze became legal again nationwide, stripping the novelty. An attempt at urban renewal failed. In 1978, the city poured its soul into gambling.

It was a boomtown until it wasn’t. Profits started to slide in the 1990s. In 1991, the Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy. Over the past decade, as gaming spread and casinos started proliferating up and down the East Coast, gamblers began sticking closer to home.

[Trump’s bad bet: How too much debt drove his biggest casino aground]

Former governor Chris Christie took over the city’s tourism district in 2010, promising owners of the Revel, a half-built casino, $261 million in tax incentives if the casino turned a profit. The state offered another $2.6 million to train workers.

At its peak, Atlantic City had 12 casinos, but that has dwindled to the current seven. The Revel opened in 2012 and filed for bankruptcy a year later. In 2014, it was one of four casinos to close, including the Trump Plaza, one of the three casinos President Trump owned here. The Plaza’s hulking structure stands vacant; discarded televisions and chairs litter a valet parking area with pink marble columns. The Taj Mahal emerged from bankruptcy protection in 2016 with a new owner, Carl Icahn, but closed months later after workers went on strike.

The city is not faring much better. Its finances were put under state control in 2016 as a way to avert municipal bankruptcy.

With the brutal failures of late, some are leery of tying the city’s future to new casinos.

“We’re always hopeful when we see new casinos open there, that they’re going to breathe new life into the area,” said Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University. “But if you’ve seen how they open and close, it doesn’t always happen.”

The Boardwalk at dusk. There's a feeling of hope in the distressed city, as new developments are set to open soon.

Still, lately there has been reason for optimism. Atlantic City casinos saw a 22.5 percent jump in gross operating profits and a 5 percent increase in revenue last year, according to the New Jersey attorney general.

The Hard Rock will occupy the building where the Taj once stood, and the Ocean Resort will open inside the old Revel. Even the owners are playing down the fact that the properties are casinos.

[Chris Christie was confident the government could fix Atlantic City. He was wrong.]

“It’s not about gaming; it’s about entertainment,” Jim Allen, the Hard Rock chief executive who got his start as a cook in a casino here, told reporters in April.

The mayor wants to make the city more family-friendly; there is little for children to do aside from play on the beach or shop with their parents at a strip of outlet malls. With Gov. Phil Murphy (D) saying that he wants to legalize marijuana across New Jersey, Gilliam envisions Atlantic City as an Amsterdam-style marijuana destination, with cafes geared toward the drug in a specially designated area.

Gilliam also wants to change the way people think about Atlantic City, where vacant lots and abandoned homes are visible from the boardwalk and casinos. New LED lights have been installed in the entertainment zone, and police officers are showing more of a presence.

He would like to rejuvenate the area within walking distance of the beach, developing vacant lots into senior housing, opening small businesses and luring millennials who can live anywhere.

“It’s about changing people’s perception of Atlantic City,” Gilliam said. “There’s still that feeling of ‘unsafe and unclean.’ ”

But a mile from the boardwalk, residents say their part of the city feels unsafe and neglected; they wonder whether there is anything in the plans for them. More than a third of Atlantic City’s residents live in poverty, according to the Census Bureau.

Part of the plan for Atlantic City is to make the Boardwalk more family-friendly and to emphasize the gambling destinations best feature: its oceanfront. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Timothy Kinlaw said he has been trying to find a job since being released from prison. He said he has culinary arts training and has interviewed to be a cook at the casinos, but his convictions for sexual assault and drug offenses have kept him from finding employment.

“I don’t like standing on corners all day. I want to work,” he said. It is a different world on this corner, a half-block from where someone was fatally shot last year, than at the casinos in the distance. “There’s no bridging the gap between here and there,” Kinlaw said.

His friend Don Victor, 46, is trying to do just that. He has been hired to be a cook at the Hard Rock and is excited about his trajectory and that of the city.

“It’s going to help people in the city who are willing to work,” Victor said. “You’re talking about thousands of jobs. That’s a huge infusion.”

And people keep coming to visit. Liam Rodriguez, 21, and three friends from LaSalle University came to party for a few days before graduation. Two of his friends had never been to Atlantic City, a cheap destination for the group.

“I think Atlantic City has all the resources to have a good time,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got the gambling; you’ve got the nightlife.”

While Atlantic City is trying to get new visitors, its regulars are what keep it going. At the Tropicana, Pat Christensen took a drag of a generic cigarette and touched the screen on a video poker machine. She and her friends call their area “the dungeon” because smoking is allowed. She lives a few miles away and comes to relax and hang out with other regulars who have become friends.

“It just seems better,” she said of the city. “It feels better.”

To her right, Joan Carnan touched her pink nail to the screen. Carnan, 84, has been coming to Atlantic City for so long that she remembers her hands turning black from all the slot machine coins. She usually takes a bus with a group of seniors from East Brunswick, N.J., and heads off the Boardwalk on Saturday afternoons to attend Mass at a Catholic church.

“All casinos are not just built or made for young people,” she said.

Years after closing down, the lights are still on in the old Trump Plaza casino lobby. The furniture is slated to be sold ahead of the complexes demolition.

Once a Boardwalk staple, The Showboat is no longer made for gambling. The casino is empty and quiet, the multicolor carpet worn threadbare and caked with cigarette ash where slot machines once stood. A Nickelback song played on speakers as a handful of people walked through a hallway to the hotel, which is still open to guests.

The Showboat is trying to reinvent itself as a destination for conferences. It will host a boxing match next month and the Atlantic City Vegan Food Festival in July.

Brittany Shade was getting ready for the Halloween Show and National Haunters Convention, where attendees perused contact lenses that turn eyes “zombie blue” and entered a costume contest. She is an artist for Nevermore Productions, a company that creates animation and design for haunted houses. Their set consisted of a skull archway, mammoth spiders and wasps, animatronic mannequins and life-size dolls with smashed heads and tattered clothing. It stood near a vestigial sign for nickel slots.

The convention was Shade’s first trip to Atlantic City, and she was a little freaked out by the dead casino. But she’s happy to help revive it.

“It’s almost like this weird graveyard of Atlantic City gambling,” she said, pointing to a sign on a column for Hot Shot progressive slots. “So it’s a little off-putting and weird. But it’s cool giving this new life.”

Credits: By Katie Zezima. Photos by Michael S. Williamson. Designed by Andrew Braford. Photo Editing by Karly Domb Sadof.