ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., Jan. 16 (UPI) -- After 25 years, is Atlantic City finally ready for the big time?
It's not exactly a new question. This aging queen of American resorts is like a Kentucky Derby hopeful that always runs second, yet still remains the favorite in the next race.
On paper it should have long ago become America's No. 1 gambling destination. Its 12 casinos are within a day's drive of 30 million people, a larger potential customer base than any casino city in the world, and yet the old dowager keeps getting fleeced by gigolos and left at the altar.
More people discovered casino gambling in the 1990s than at any time in the nation's history, and yet the whole "theme casino" boom passed Atlantic City by. Most of the resorts here look like the old part of the Vegas Strip, the 1950s generic style of the Riviera or the Sahara or the Stardust, and they look pretty much the same in 2002 as they did in 1985.
But now the biggest casino resort project in the city's history, called the Borgata, is rising out of a swamp near the Absecon inlet, and it's going to have all the bells and whistles of the finest Vegas super-resorts. A lot is riding on its success, and once again the city that gets no respect is hoping it will finally emerge as a true vacation resort, like Orlando or Miami or Las Vegas, and not just another slot-machine gristmill full of aging tourists who arrive on buses, spend a few quarters and go home.
It's what the state of New Jersey has been promoting ever since 1977, when this became the second state in America to legalize casino gambling. It was more an act of desperation than anything else, a hope that gambling would rescue a slatternly ocean resort that had become little more than a crime-infested slum struggling to hold onto its heritage as "America's Playground."
But "the next Las Vegas" never quite caught up to the more famous gambling capital. There was an initial building boom as Vegas companies tried to hedge their bets by erecting sister properties on the Jersey shore. Then the newness wore off, and ennui set in. People loved the boardwalk resorts, but they were less than thrilled with the city itself, which remained grim and uninviting, a ghetto-like warren of urban blight that they would drive through, quickly, on their way to the beachfront.
By the late eighties Donald Trump was the only player who continued to aggressively develop new casinos. Since then. the city has been in a holding pattern -- a "mature" market, in the words of Wall Street -- while all the money shifted again to Vegas in the 1990s.
On the surface, at least, the New Jersey legislature has achieved its original purpose. The street crime, for the most part, is gone. The mob is gone. Most of the crumbling 19th-century buildings are gone, more than 3,000 of them demolished within the last ten years.
For the first time in years, Atlantic City has attractive new housing -- mostly condos and townhouses that, ironically, look like sterile cookie-cutter versions of the buildings that were torn down. And in terms of sheer dollars, Atlantic City has become the second largest gambling market in the world, with $4.7 billion a year in gaming income (about half of what the whole state of Nevada takes in).
But Atlantic City didn't exactly undergo a revival so much as the old Atlantic city was swept away and an entirely new one was laid on top of it. Unlike other Jersey resorts, such as nearby Cape May and Ocean City, there is no charm to the place. The high-rise casinos not only wiped out most of the old hotels and theaters and vacation homes, but they leveled entire blocks of the surrounding area to create parking lots, high-rise parking garages that have their backs to the city, unsightly bus terminals, and concrete no-man's-lands that would discourage competing casinos from trying to build next door. The landscape has a jagged-tooth look, not unlike many decaying downtowns across the country, with the result that much of what made the city great -- its elegance and Roaring Twenties charm -- is gone.
Many of the city's original residents fled as soon as the building cranes showed up, either selling their property outright or leasing it and moving away. Most of the Boardwalk businesses -- fortune tellers, massage joints, taffy vendors, hot dog stands and cheap souvenir sellers -- pay rent to absentee landlords.
The last new casino, Trump's Taj Mahal, was built 12 years ago. Two other casinos, the Claridge and the Sands, have only recently emerged from bankruptcy. And Wall Street is warning that 2001 will probably mark the first net revenue decline for the city in many years, a trend that was well established before Sept. 11.
Meanwhile, the city continues to have a love-hate relationship with its most famous attraction, the Miss America Pageant. Every year the pageant organizers threaten to leave, citing offers from other casino cities that would pay them as much as $2 million to relocate. Atlantic City pays only $670,000 a year to support the pageant but has somehow managed to enforce its historical claim. The first Miss America, 15-year-old Margaret Gorman, was crowned as an Atlantic City publicity stunt in 1921.
Then there's the matter of the airport.
The optimistically named Atlantic City International is probably the finest airport in the world that nobody uses. Its facilities are so state-of-the-art that it's the fifth alternate landing point for the Space Shuttle. Federal sky marshalls train there, and the Sands once landed the Concorde there for a special European gambling junket for high-rollers. Yet only 2 per cent of Atlantic City tourists arrive by air, and the city's more or less constant jawboning with the airlines has resulted in only one carrier with regular service, the low-budget Spirit Airlines.
Continental inaugurated direct flights to and from Cleveland last year, but they were canceled after Sept. 11. Atlantic City is just an hour's drive from Philadelphia, so it's too costly to fly to both cities. Besides, there aren't enough hotel rooms to offer enough package tours to make the destination attractive. It's still hard to get a room in the city, especially on weekends, mostly because the casinos give away 70 per cent of their rooms to preferred gamblers, and they would rather hold on to empty rooms for last-minute arrivals than to rent them at the standard rate.
Announcing -- drum roll, please -- the Borgata! With more than 2,000 rooms, an upscale Italian theme similar to the Bellagio and the Venetian in Vegas, gourmet dining, a major showroom, and scads of carriage-trade shopping, it's destined to become THE place to stay when its owners, Boyd Gaming and MGM/Mirage, unveil it next year. Will Borgata set off a building boom similar to what happened when Steve Wynn erected the Mirage in Las Vegas in 1989?
"Borgata is raising the bar," says Sara Lindkrantz, a development executive with the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority. "In terms of property amenities, everyone else will have to catch up. And it's already happening. The Tropicana is adding retail shops and opening up their rooms.
"Borgata has told us they WILL make rooms available to the retail market, not just to their preferred gamblers. And they're going to seriously go after the convention business."
Harrah's, Borgata's next-door neighbor in the bleak marina district, is adding a new tower (its third) to get ready for the competition, as is the Showboat at the northern end of the Boardwalk. Hotels are upgrading their restaurants, adding spas and starting to look to the convention business as a way to transform the city.
Unfortunately, the city's reputation with conventioneers is not exactly stellar. In a 1998 study commissioned by the tourism group, only 9 percent of convention attendees said that their experience in Atlantic City made them think they'd like to come back more often. Some 30 percent said, frankly, that they were determined to come less often.
The fact is, Atlantic City has always been a place for gambling and very little else. In that same study, 90 percent of the tourists came to gamble and only 14 percent took in some secondary activity, like the beach or a show.
The average age of the Atlantic City visitor is 55, and he comes to the city 13 times a year. So the customer base is almost entirely made up of people within driving distance who zoom in, gamble a few hours and then leave. A thousand tour buses a day arrive in the city, some from as far away as Chicago, but the average stay for the day-trippers is 6.6 hours.
But the city has turned aggressive over the past five years, investing in capital improvement projects that indicate they're finally serious about making Atlantic City more than just a convenient location for slot machines. A new Convention Center opened in May 1997, replacing the beloved but crumbling Romanesque hall on the boardwalk where the Miss America pageant has been held since 1940. But rather than demolish the old convention hall -- as they probably would have 25 years ago -- they closed it for three years, did a massive $90 million renovation, and reopened it in October with concerts by Andrea Bocelli and Britney Spears.
Boardwalk Hall, as it's now called, is listed on the National Historic Landmark Registry and can handle 13,000 for concerts, 10,500 for boxing and other sports events.
Immediately after the opening ceremony, a new minor league hockey team moved in, called the Boardwalk Bullies, and they've been averaging a phenomenal 3,000 per game ever since. (At a recent game, former Philadelphia Flyer star Daniel Lacroix happened to be in the audience. When the Bullies ended up short-handed, the general manager asked him if he wanted to suit up -- and he did! Lacroix recorded an assist and received four penalty minutes as the Bullies defeated Peoria.)
The World Wrestling Federation has scheduled major events in Boardwalk Hall, as well as the Lipizzaner stallions, "Disney on Ice," and other family-friendly events that in past years wouldn't have stopped in Atlantic City.
To make sure this is not just a passing phase, the tourism group -- which is funded by the hotels through a $2-per-room charge for each occupied room in a casino, $1-per-room for each non-casino hotel -- is setting out to alter the city's image. Only one in 37 tourists is a first-time visitor --indicating that they're recycling the same customer over and over again. He's not a very young customer -- and they want to change that. They want first-timers to see that the city has been cleaned up, that there are more attractions than just gambling, and they especially want to fill up the new Convention Center, an ultra-modern facility next to the train station, and a Sheraton, just a few blocks from the boardwalk.
The problem is, there's not enough sightseeing. There are no exploding volcanoes, dancing fountains, or other "must see" attractions like the ones in Vegas. Even though there are dozens of golf courses in the area, less than 1 percent of the tourists use them. Most of the famous piers that were once full of amusement rides, museums and shopping areas, have either fallen back into the ocean or been converted into low-rent malls (the Million Dollar Pier), less-than-thrilling carnival attractions (the Steel Pier), or half-hearted local museums (the Garden Pier).
One good sign for the future is that Caesar's Palace intends to convert the Million Dollar Pier, which it owns, into a new gaming area, and possibly even build hotel rooms there.
As a result the city's tourism group is trying to sell potential tourists on the idea of combining casino stays with visits to other south Jersey attractions -- a day in the beautifully preserved 19th-century resort of Cape May, deep-sea fishing (stripers are large and abundant), a jaunt to Hammondton ("blueberry capital of America"), a tour of the old Absecon Lighthouse and winery tours (yes, they make New Jersey wine, more of it than you would ever imagine).
But the future of the city still depends on more hotel rooms. Atlantic City has 13,000 rooms and, in a pinch, can furnish 8,000 for a single convention, but that's only one-tenth of what Vegas offers.
The problem is available land.
The city is small -- only 38,000 permanent residents -- and nothing outside can be developed because it's not zoned for gambling. Land acquisition can take years of trying to piece together hundreds of small parcels, all owned by people demanding millions of dollars to sell out. (The most famous example is Vera Coking, who refused to sell her house to Donald Trump, so the Trump Plaza is built around her.) Hotel chains don't want to compete with the casinos, especially without regular air service, and airlines don't want to fly here until there are more hotel rooms.
That's why the Borgata will be crucial to the city's success. Vegas thrived on a philosophy of "Build it and they will come." Atlantic City optimists are looking forward to a time when there will be two distinct gambling markets -- the theme casinos in the marina district for the "venturesome" (meaning younger) tourist, and the traditional places along the boardwalk for the quick-and-dirty gambler. In the best of all possible worlds, they could develop a whole new clientele without losing the old one.
For most people who visit Atlantic City today, it's the only kind of gambling resort they know; 62 percent have never been to any other casinos. So when the Borgata opens, there won't just be a new casino in town. There will be a new way of thinking about Atlantic City. Maybe the old girl has a few more centuries in her yet.
(Joe Bob Briggs writes a number of columns for UPI. Email "The Vegas Guy" at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.)