Promises kept, problems remain after 30 years of Atlantic City casinos

Atlantic City (AP) — The ads were titled „Help Yourself, Help Atlantic City, Help New Jersey,“ and they made a series of promises, if only voters would pull the „yes“ lever to legalize casino gambling.
Having casinos in Atlantic City would „balance taxes, create jobs, boost the economy, and cut down on street crime,“ the advertisements assured.

Thirty years after singer Steve Lawrence tossed the first dice onto a green felt table to kick off legalized gambling on Memorial Day 1978, there is no question that casinos have transformed Atlantic City into a USD 5 billion-a-year powerhouse.

But while most of those promises were kept, many of the problems the gambling halls and their billions were intended to address remain.

Casinos created tens of thousands of jobs, a flood of money for state coffers, and put New Jersey on the national map for vacation and gambling junkets. But they also created a sharper divide between the haves and have-nots. Before voters approved casino gambling in 1976, Atlantic City was a poor city struggling with crime, drugs and lack of jobs. Today it has the casinos, but the other problems persist.

„I feel sorry for the people that have been here all their lives and went through 1976, thinking there would be change,“ said Merceda Gooding, a 40-year-old Atlantic City resident. „It saddens me to see that. In 1976, they said they were going to do all this stuff to help the needs of the Atlantic City residents, and they’ve fallen short a lot. We don’t even have a grocery store here.“

Gooding is completing her college degree in business administration and human resources. She wants a white-collar job at a casino, but has found the work available to be much less attractive.

„I wouldn’t have a problem getting a job at a casino as long as it’s a maid job or washing the tables,“ she said.

Tom Carver, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said casinos delivered on their economic promises, but were never supposed to be saviors.

„Casinos are not government,“ he said. „Casinos are not schools. Casinos are not anything other than (things that) provide jobs and public money, and they did that galore.“

‚The town was nothing‘

Founded as a health retreat where the salt air was thought to be curative, by 1880 Atlantic City was a full-fledged resort, complete with the nation’s first Boardwalk. It gave the world Miss America, salt water taffy and the Monopoly board game.

But by the middle of the 20th century, the resort was fading. The grand hotels were decaying and the advent of air travel put more exotic destinations within reach of tourists who once drove or took the train to Atlantic City.

„You could roll a bowling ball down Pacific Avenue and not hit anybody,“ said Carver. „The town was nothing. It had no hope, no future, no vision, no anything.“

On Nov. 2, 1976, the day President Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, New Jersey voters approved casino gambling by a margin of 200,000 votes out of 2 million cast. Crowds formed on the Boardwalk that night, spontaneously breaking into little parades, and many bars gave away free drinks — perhaps accounting for the little parades.

Work soon began on the first casino, Resorts Atlantic City, which opened on Memorial Day 1978 with a line of people blocks long snaking down the Boardwalk, waiting to get in.

Other casinos soon followed: Caesars Atlantic City and Bally’s Atlantic City in 1979, what would become the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, and Harrah’s Atlantic City in 1980, the Tropicana Casino and Resort in 1981. By 2003, when the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa opened, there were 12 gambling houses, although the Sands Casino Hotel closed in 2006.

Money flowed and the city’s skyline grew. Everyone from Donald Trump to Steve Wynn to Merv Griffin wanted a piece of the action.

But just two blocks away from the casinos was a different Atlantic City: a poor population living in substandard housing, feeling cut off and alienated from the glittering wealth just beyond their grasp.

Sheila Thomas, 60, a lifelong resident and former casino cashier supervisor, said the casino boom has passed the average Atlantic City resident by.

„We’re the ones who put up with the drugs and the gunshots and the street crime out here every night,“ she said. „I’ve worked here, I’ve paid taxes here and I helped make this town. Now I feel like they want me to leave.“

Gooding, the casino job seeker, added, „There are a lot of angry people in our city. We have to deal with the traffic, the crime, the prostitution and the drug activity, but I can’t get any opportunity from the casinos.

„When tourists come down here, they see beautiful attractions, but they never come into the poor part of Atlantic City and really see the homeless situation,“ she said. „People are living in deplorable conditions. You go two blocks from the casinos and it’s like you’re living in a different country. We have a soup kitchen right across the street from the Taj Mahal. On Atlantic Avenue, you’ll see nothing but homeless people standing around asking for dollars.“

Tony Rodio, president of Resorts Atlantic City and the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort, said Las Vegas also has neighborhoods that haven’t prospered with the casinos. And he noted that more than 40,000 people have jobs because of Atlantic City’s gambling halls.

„There’s only so much the casino industry can do,“ he said. „I don’t think there was a promise that they were going to be able to eradicate poverty and redevelop every single square foot of Atlantic City. But in the grand scheme of things, the casinos have delivered on the promises to Atlantic City that were made 30 years ago.“

Worsening the city’s problems has been a culture of corruption in city government dating back to the early 1900s, but which has thrived in recent decades.

When former mayor Robert Levy resigned last fall and pleaded guilty to lying about his Vietnam War service to fatten his veterans benefits check, he became the fourth mayor out of the last eight to be snared on corruption charges. The former City Council president is serving 40 months in federal prison for taking bribes, and two former council colleagues also were convicted.

„We still have some of our worthies being carted off to the hoosegow a couple times a year,“ Carver said. „The quality of government has to improve. We’re trying to entice major, major investors, billions of dollars here, and they’re fearful.“

Donald Trump, as usual, put it more bluntly.

„I’ve never in my life seen a group like the elected officials in Atlantic City, and it’s been like this for decades. They either leave City Hall like this,“ he said, holding his arms out in front of him as if his wrists were handcuffed, „or this,“ he concluded, pointing to his temple with his index finger, making circles to indicate craziness.

Gov. Jon Corzine, the former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, agreed that Atlantic City needs ethical leadership, but said it is up to the community to elect honest people. He thinks casinos have been a plus for the city and the state, but feels more needs to be done.

„The vision and the reality are not fully aligned,“ he said. „There are a lot of straws in the wind that say this could be more of a community-involved structure. I think we can do better. But they have not failed.“

Bob McDevitt graduated from high school in 1980, and leaped at the chance to work in the casinos. He’s now president of Atlantic City’s largest casino workers‘ union; he and his wife have five children and own their own house.

„About 75% of my high school graduating class still lives right here because the opportunity was here for us,“ he said. „We were able to go to college, raise families and have good jobs right where we grew up.

„And it’s not just the pit dealers who do well; there are a lot of housekeepers and dishwashers in my union that own their own homes because of the casinos,“ McDevitt said. „A housekeeper and her husband who might be a dishwasher can bring home a combined USD 50,000 to USD 55,000 here, with a full pension and 100% medical coverage. Those are the kind of jobs you can build a family and raise kids on.“

Casinos struggling

Atlantic City casinos have had their own financial struggles recently, with fierce competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania and New York. Last year, the city’s casino revenues declined for the first time. One of Atlantic City’s oldest casinos, the Tropicana, is for sale. Its former owners lost their casino license last December and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 5.

The city’s problems remain despite a flood of casino money that New Jersey required the gambling houses to cough up. The casinos pay 8% of their revenues to a state fund that uses the money, among other things, to help senior citizens afford prescription drugs, and pays for transportation including mini-buses that shuttle seniors to and from grocery stores around the state.

In 1984, the state created the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which required casinos to contribute an additional 1.25% of their revenues to economic development projects. So far, it has funded USD 2 billion worth of projects statewide, USD 1.5 billion of which are in Atlantic City.

The casinos have paid a total of USD 7.5 billion into the Casino Revenue Fund to help senior citizens and the disabled. The largest share, several hundred million dollars a year, goes to the Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged & Disabled program, which pays for all but USD 5 of the cost of prescription drugs.

Steven Perskie, a Superior Court judge and former state assemblyman who wrote the law authorizing casino gambling in 1976, said casinos were the only thing that could have saved Atlantic City.

„You only have to ask yourself what this city would be like today without casinos,“ he said. „I remember being at a dinner one night with the governor and people from Resorts, and people kept coming up to my wife and asking her to thank all of us for giving them jobs and a way to support their families.“

Carver, the Casino Reinvestment director, said Atlantic City would be far worse off without casinos.

„There’s no doubt in my mind that this industry, with all its warts, was the only thing that could have brought this town back,“ he said. „It has restored hope where there was none, and a future where there was none.“