Atlantic City Falls From Glittering Resort To Bargain Basement

Oct 4, 2014
Originally published on October 6, 2014 1:36 pm

The U.S. may have added jobs to its payroll last month, but the losses are still huge in Atlantic City, N.J., where four casinos have closed this year. A fifth teeters, and more than 7,000 people — dealers, greeters, cooks and maids — have been laid off.

The job losses could mean a future of boarded windows and abandoned buildings.

In the 1970s, Atlantic City had lost the glitter of its golden years — the 1940s and '50s, when it was a favored summer spot with a broad beach, the Boardwalk, pastel resort hotels and the home of the Miss America Pageant.

The city fell into debt, crime and decrepitude. In 1976, Atlantic City bet that legalized gambling could bring back hope, glory — and money.

In a 1987 interview with NPR, Joe Wittershine of the Golden Nugget casino remembered the early days of gambling in Atlantic City.

"One of my fondest memories is of 1978, coming down to Atlantic City and standing on the Boardwalk while people lined up to get in the casino," he said. "Ten o'clock in the morning, security guards open the door and these people, with their coin cuffs and change, ran — ran — to the slot machines. And I said, 'What a fascinating industry this is, people running to give you money.' "

But gambling is no longer a safe bet. Thousands of casinos have opened in the United States, in major cities and on Indian reservation lands nearby.

Casinos like the Taj Mahal lost the day-trippers, people who get on the bus in Philadelphia or somewhere else in New Jersey or New York, come to Atlantic City, spend eight hours in front of a slot machine and go home. Now they have other places to go, closer to home.

"That $5 billion that people spent in Atlantic City on gaming is now being split by 30 casinos in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York, when just six years ago it all belonged to Atlantic City," says Mayor Don Guardian.

He says he has to lay off 200 to 300 city employees by the middle of next year because taxpayers can't afford to pay for city services.

"Now we can't afford to do it, and everything came crashing down, all within a six-month period," Guardian says.

Donald Hardrick worked the desk at the Revel Casino Hotel, which closed in September.

"It's been hard," he says. "The first week was OK, hanging out, chilling. But now, it does get boring after a while. I've been looking at casino jobs, I've been applying at Borgata, Golden Nugget, Tropicana, Resorts, but no callbacks yet."

No surprise, when so many others in town have lost their jobs, too.

"Seven thousand people, and there's not 7,000 jobs, so it's hard," Hardrick says. "Only thing you do is just apply, that's it. Just apply, apply and pray for the best."

Cindy Almonte lost her job as a dealer at one casino and has been rehired at another, but says people who had full-time work now have to accept part-time jobs that pay less.

"People that were full-time at Showboat are now part-time at Caesars or Harrah's," Almonte says. "They got a transfer, but it's not the same position. So it's still a struggle."

Hardrick has two months of unemployment benefits left.

"I'm going to be all right," he says. "I have my mother. I have money saved up. But there are a lot of people I worked with, they had families, kids going to school."

A lot of work in Atlantic City has always been seasonal, tied to the swell of tourists drawn to the sea in the summer.

"I'm always worried about the winter," says Justin Garrett, a bartender at the Dusk Nightclub at Caesars. "The winter's always our slow season, and we always take a hit in the winter, so we try to make what we can in the summer, and kind of like squirrels, we stockpile for the winter."

The Ducktown Tavern on Atlantic Avenue hunkers down for the winter with 27 large TV screens and a 24-hour license. John Exadaktalis opened the tavern almost ten years ago.

"its' just nature of the beast you know. this summer was a good summer. hopefully people were smart and they saved, i'm talking businesses and people. I knew this was going to be the belly scraper this winter, without a doubt, but next year is going to be a little better. And slowly transform back where we were."

Guardian can see several layers of Atlantic City history from his top-floor office window: the old resort town, with wedding-cake style seafront hotels and salt water spas, many of which were left to peel by legalized gambling; and the newer, gaudy and glassy casinos that now sit dark and empty.

He still thinks business people should make a bet on Atlantic City.

"We are Filene's Basement," he says. "You're not going to find a better bargain than coming to Atlantic City." This week, the shuttered Revel Casino sold for $110 million. It cost $2.4 billion when it opened two years ago.

Guardian looks back and says the city missed its best opportunity.

"Atlantic City had the advantage of the billions of dollars coming through, with gaming, to do things other than gaming in the city to fix it up, to diversify, to become a cool place to visit, to become a great place to live," he says. "We didn't take advantage of that. That was our mistake."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The U.S. added more jobs last month, according to yesterday's national jobs number. But the losses are still huge in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where four casinos have closed this year, a fifth teeters, and more than 7,000 people have been laid off - dealers, greeters, cooks and maids in the hotels and casinos. And that could mean a future filled with boarded windows and abandoned buildings.

Back in 1976, Atlantic City bet its future on gambling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOT MACHINES)

SIMON: The city had lost glitter since its golden times in the 1940s and '50s when it was a favored summer spot with a broad beach, the Boardwalk, pastel resort hotels and the home of the Miss America Pageant. City fell into debt, crime and decrepidness by the '70s. Atlantic City bet that legalized gambling could bring back hope, glory and ka-ching. Louis Malle's 1980 film "Atlantic City," he had Robert Goulet sing a ring-a-ding anthem for a time to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATLANTIC CITY, MY OLD FRIEND")

ROBERT GOULET: (Singing) Be there when I bet on 10. I bet on you. Remember how they put you down. There's not an empty room in town.

SIMON: Back in 1987, we interviewed Joe Wittershine with the Golden Nugget, who remembered the early days of gambling in Atlantic City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOE WITTERSHINE: One of my fondest memories was of 1978, coming down to Atlantic City and standing on a boardwalk, while people lined up to get in the casino. Ten o'clock in the morning, security guards open the door. And these people with their coin cups and change ran - ran to these slot machines. And I said, what a fascinating industry this is. People are actually running to give you money. I said, I have to become part of it.

SIMON: But gambling is no longer a safe bet. Thousands of casinos have opened in the United States, in major cities and on Indian reservation lands nearby, which we saw for ourselves this week in Atlantic City.

With a casino like the Taj Mahal, where on the floor of it - now have lost all the day-trippers - people who get on a bus in Philadelphia or somewhere else in New Jersey or in Queens, Astoria, and to come to Atlantic City in a casino like this for a day, spend eight hours in front of a slot machine, have a couple of drinks and leave. Now they have other places to go that are a lot closer to home.

MAYOR DON GUARDIAN: That $5 billion that people spent in Atlantic City on gaming is now being split by 30 casinos in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, when just six years ago, it all belonged to Atlantic City.

SIMON: Don Guardian, he's the mayor of Atlantic City. He says he has to lay off 200 to 300 city employees by the middle of next year because taxpayers can't afford to pay for city services like they were slot machines.

GUARDIAN: Now we can't afford to do it, and everything came crashing down all within a six-month period.

SIMON: Donald Hardrick was one of the people who was clobbered in that crash. He worked the desk at the Revel casino hotel, which closed in September.

DONALD HARDRICK: It's been hard. I mean, the first week was OK, you know, hanging out, chilling. But now, it does get boring after a while. I've been looking at casino jobs - you know, I've been applying at Borgata, Golden Nugget, Tropicana, Resorts, but no callbacks yet.

SIMON: And after all, more than 7,000 other people in town have lost their jobs too.

HARDRICK: Seven-thousand people, and there's not 7,000 jobs, so it's hard. Only thing you can do is just apply - that's it. Just apply, apply and pray for the best.

SIMON: Cindy Almonte lost her job as a dealer at one casino and has been rehired at another, but says people who had full-time work now have to accept part-time jobs that pay less.

ALMONTE: People that were full time at Showboat are part-time at Caesars or part-time at Harrah's. You know, they got a transfer but it's not the same position. So it's still a struggle.

SIMON: Donald Hardwick has two months of unemployment benefits let.

HARDRICK: I'm going to be all right. You know, I have my mother, I have - you know, I have money saved up. But there are a lot of people I work with that have families, kids, were going to school. I'm going to be OK. I'm worried about, you know, the others that are, you know, maybe a little older, can't really just get up and leave. But, you know, I'm still relatively young, so...

SIMON: A lot of work in Atlantic City has always been seasoned, tied to the swell of tourists drawn to the sea in the summer. Justin Garrett is a bartender at the Dusk Nightclub at Caesars.

JUSTIN GARRETT: I'm always worried about the winter. The winter is always our slow season and we always take a hit in the winter. So we try to make what we can in the summer and just, you know, kind of like squirrels, we stockpile for the winter just so we can make it through.

SIMON: Mayor Don Guardian can see several layers of Atlantic City history from his top floor office window. The old resort town with wedding cake-style seafront hotels and saltwater spas, many of which were left to peel by legalized gambling, and the newer, gaudy and glassy casinos that now sit dark and empty. What short speech do you give people - business people in particular - about why they should now make a bet on Atlantic City?

GUARDIAN: Because we are Filene's Basement. You're not going to find the better bargain then coming to Atlantic City. Two billion, two hundred million dollars property at Revel, you're going to pick up for about $100 million. Four hundred million dollar casino that closed other than Revel, you're going to pick up for $25 million.

SIMON: With the advantage of a little more than a generation of hindsight, did Atlantic City make a bad bet on gaming?

GUARDIAN: If I could compare Atlantic City on a small scale to the United Arab Emirates on the big scale, these guys figured out they had oil but it was finite. And so they weren't going to have oil forever, and they needed to do something with their country and decided that having the business capital of the Mideast would make a whole lot of sense. They developed Dubai. Atlantic City had the advantage of the billions of dollars coming through with gaming to do things other than gaming in the city to fix it up, to diversify, become a cool place to visit, to become a great place to live. We didn't take advantage of that. That was our mistake.

SIMON: Mayor Guardian told us about a plan of a Florida man to build a university in the Revel Casino site. But this week, a Canadian gaming company won the auction for the property. The Revel cost $2.4 billion when it opened two years ago. This week it was sold for $110 million.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATLANTIC CITY, MY OLD FRIEND")

GOULET: (Singing) I'm glad to see you're born again. Atlantic City, my old friend. You're back upon the map again. You sure came through. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.