Casino Comeback: 'Atlantic City's Best Days Are In Front Of It'


The boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. on Thursday.
Michelle Gustafson for NPR

The boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. on Thursday.

Legendary gambling destination Atlantic City, N.J. is trying to re-make itself into a place where you can do more: attend a convention, see a show, visit a spa, hang out at the beach and get a nice meal.

The goal is to attract more tourists — and their dollars. The city also wants to provide jobs for the thousands left unemployed after five casinos closed in the last four years.

The biggest sign of this re-make strategy is two casinos that have re-opened under new owners.

After the Trump Taj Mahal went out of business in 2016, Hard Rock International spent more than $500 million transforming the dusty 1980s-style place into a trendy, rock-and-roll-themed resort.

The grand opening event was held in a concert hall rather than on the casino floor. There were fireworks, smoke machines, acrobats, fire performers and a promise of a bright future.

"We believe in Atlantic City. We believe in the state of New Jersey. And we truly believe that Atlantic City's best days are in front of it," said Hard Rock International Chairman Jim Allen to a cheering crowd.

The company says 50,000 people applied for nearly 4,000 open positions. Many of them will be represented by Unite Here Local 54. President Bob McDevitt says the last decade has been tough on local workers.

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"Back in 2006 we had about 15,000 members. Today we're down around 10,000," says McDevitt, adding that he sees growth for his union in the future.

Just up the boardwalk from the Hard Rock resort is the former Revel casino — a 47-story building that closed just two years after it was built. Now it's called the Ocean Resort Casino.

It includes a 7,500 square foot sports betting area and bar that will be lined with big televisions. A U.S. Supreme Court decision last month lifted effective bans on sports betting in most states.

Ocean Resort Casino owner and Chairman Bruce Deifik says Atlantic City already has 24.5 million visitors a year but he hopes new amenities and events will attract even more.

"The question is can we, and the other properties in town, move that number to 30 million people? I think the answer is yes," says Deifik.

Without a big boost in new tourists, some worry the new resort casinos could end up just poaching business away from the existing casinos in town.

"There's a couple of them teetering on the brink right now. If they lose a substantial amount of business ... We may lose one two more as the winter progresses," says Roger Gros, publisher Global Gaming Business magazine.

Talk with tourists on Atlantic City's boardwalk about whether the city's strategy will work and the conversation often turns to Las Vegas, which already has broadened its focus beyond gambling.

"Well in Vegas there's a lot more shows and, you know, you can do stuff every night. There're shows all over," says Melissa Rainwater. She was visiting from Arkansas.

The new resorts are promising more shows in Atlantic City too. Hard Rock plans to have a show every day of the year, some with big names like country star Carrie Underwood and rapper Pitbull.

"It's no Las Vegas yet but in due time, who knows?" says Kariem Mahone, visiting from northern New Jersey. He says one draw Atlantic City has that Las Vegas doesn't is the beach. He hopes that will help the city succeed.

The local casino business was starting to improve even before this new strategy, according to a university that monitors the Atlantic City casino business.

"The casino revenue last year was up 1.6 percent," says Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University. And he says revenue from hotels and entertainment also increased.

Now many will be watching to see if a strategy to focus on more than gambling will pay off for Atlantic City over the long term.

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