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Atlantic City on March 30, 2016 (Getty Images)
The 2014 shuttering of four of Atlantic City’s twelve casinos should have surprised no one and yet managed to shock everyone. Triggered by new gaming competition in surrounding states, the closings killed 8,000 jobs. Tax revenue, which had started falling with the recession, nose-dived. According to Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, who calls the situation "dire," Miss America's stomping ground has lost 70 percent of its tax base in five years.
Meanwhile, last December, Moody's Investors Service issued a report predicting more casino closings; the best bet to fold next is the Trump Taj Mahal (now owned by Carl Ichan), currently embroiled in a bitter labor dispute with the workers of Local 54. And then there's state lawmakers' push to open North Jersey up to gambling, an event Guardian believes would be "quite disastrous" for his town should it happen.
Outside the Trump Taj Mahal on March 30, 2016 (Getty Images)
Still to come for the beleaguered city is possible bankruptcy or a state takeover so far-reaching Guardian quipped at a news conference that it would amount to a "fascist dictatorship."
Should the city government shut down, essential services will continue and hotels, restaurants, casinos, spas, shops and nightclubs will remain open for New Yorkers looking for a spring fling in Atlantic City. And despite A.C.'s economic issues, it's showing some of signs of life as the weather warms.
A press image of Atlantic City
There are great travel deals to be had right now from properties like the Borgata, which is offering a number of mid-week specials. You're likely to have a better chance of getting a prime time table at Bobby Flay Steak versus Gato on Lafayette Street, or Old Homestead Steak House compared to its Meatpacking District original—of course, a half-empty dining room might feel more like The Shining than a scene from The Color of Money. In addition, bargain hunters will appreciate Bally's, Caesars and Harrah's semi-annual sales.
(Re)Build It and They Will Come(?)
Even if most real estate is going for Baltic Avenue prices, all is not lost in the city that inspired Monopoly. Guardian is quick to point out how many of the city's remaining casinos are evolving to emphasize pleasures other than gaming.
"Borgata, Harrah's, Golden Nugget, Resorts and Tropicana each have spent $100 million retooling their properties," Guardian tells us, "and they went from being casinos to being resorts. They added some of the hippest nightclubs on the East Coast, they brought in world class spas and they added fun dining and fine dining as well as retail to the mix."
In the meantime, the state-run Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has been focusing on "creating an environment that encourages visitation through conventions, trade shows and entertainment venues," says CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri. The agency, which uses gaming revenue collected from casinos to support city improvement projects, helped fund the 200,000-square-foot Harrah's Conference Center and Bass Pro Shops that have opened in the past few years.
While big-box brands alone won't snag visitors from cities like New York and Philadelphia, CRDA's concerts on the beach just might. Last summer 80,000 people flocked to see Maroon 5 and Rascal Flatts. This year the city will serve up a half-dozen shows in the sand and sun, concerts in venues like Boardwalk Hall, and its first-ever Ironman competition.
A huge crowd for Blake Shelton's concert in 2014, the year that four casinos closed (Bob Krist)
Other new attractions include developer Bart Blatstein's entertainment complex that opened in the former Pier Shops at Caesars last year. While reviews of The Playground have been mixed, the man who reinvented Philly's Northern Liberties neighborhood isn't worried.
"We had the largest New Year's Eve party ever in Atlantic City," says Blatstein. "We had over 5,000 people! People want a reason to come to Atlantic City. You just have to give it to them. It's been like Groundhog Day there—there hasn't been anything new. But there's a rebirth starting in Atlantic City, and it will be reborn into something different than it's ever been."
New Year's Eve in Atlantic City (Courtesy of Bert Blatstein)
Go Big Or Go Home
If Blatstein has his way, that something could be a gleaming resort town owned in large part by his Philadelphia-based company Tower Investments. Blatstein—who Guardian calls "one of my heroes"—is set to redevelop Garden Pier and recently picked up the Showboat casino, a casualty of the 2014 bloodbath, for $23 million.
"I bought that gigantic, 3-million-square-foot property for what you'd pay for a beachfront house in East Hampton," Blatstein notes. "I'm not stopping there. It's an incredible opportunity. I'm working on three other Atlantic City properties right now." (In other interviews, he's said emphatically that A.C. needs to be an "adult playground," targeting "young, wealthy New Yorkers.”)
Blatstein isn't the only developer scooping up chunks of Atlantic City at rock-bottom prices. Quirky Florida billionaire Glenn Straub recently netted the biggest white whale of them all, the infamous Revel casino, which cost $2.4 billion to build, went bankrupt twice and closed after less than three years. Straub, who scored Revel for four cents on the dollar, says he'll have 500 rooms open by mid-June. He also wants to rope in high-rolling clientele from Manhattan and other environs via helicopters, seaplanes and prop planes, landing the latter at the city's defunct Bader Field, which in recent years has been successfully used as a summer concert venue. Straub doesn't own it yet, but plans to have it up and running within a year.
Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City
And then there's Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center. Straub says he's going to buy them from the CRDA, part of his grand scheme to remake Atlantic City, which includes building polo fields, water parks and an extreme sports complex.
"The town should be a resort, like it used to be when I was six years old and came here," Straub explained. "It's ideal for that. We'll have real estate values up four times what they are now in ten years, mark my words." If it sounds like Straub's dreaming, Atlantic City has always been a place for dreamers, a city where fantasy takes form.
Atlantic City on March 30, 2016 (Getty Images)
"I think that's why people came to Atlantic City for the last 160 years," muses Guardian. "You came because your city didn't have a boardwalk, or you never saw a woman sit on top of a horse, climb up a platform and jump into a pool."
Jill Gleeson is a travel and adventure journalist based in the Appalachians of Central Pennsylvania. Find her on Twitter at @gopinkboots.