Tuesday, May 19, 2009

As Goes Atlantic City

Atlantic City is in serious trouble, and it's not just because of a declining casino take. The City has been failed by its political leaders, and all the casino revenue in the world isn't going to fix it, even though hundreds of millions have flowed into the city to fund just that. Actually, it's far more than that - it's $1.5 billion since 1984 (and another $500 million to other localities around the state).

Even casino operators see that there are tough times ahead.
“I could sit here and slit my wrists listening to some people here,” quipped Kevin DeSanctis, chief executive of the Revel Entertainment Group, which has seen work stall on its $2 billion Atlantic City hotel.

The city’s gaming revenue declined 15 percent in the first four months of this year compared with the same four months in 2008, but Linda Kassekert, chairwoman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, dismissed Wilmott’s comments.

“Although times may be tough, there’s a lot of life left in the queen of resorts, so don’t count her out so soon,” she said today.

Still, many of the analysts thought Atlantic City faces enormous problems.

Dennis Farrell of Wachovia Capital Markets said during a roundtable of gaming analysts that it “needs a complete makeover.”

Fellow analyst David Berman of Regal Capital Advisors jokingly asked whether he could be provided with a security guard before addressing the “death spiral” remark.

“I agree those words are aggressive, but there are significant challenges facing this marketplace,” Berman said.

“There are parts of this town that look like downtown Beirut,” he added. “You’ve got to put money into this town to bring back the luster.”
Let's start with that last line. Much of downtown Atlantic City looks worse than Beirut. At least Beirut has an excuse of civil war. What's Atlantic City's excuse?

Block after block of desolation isn't conducive for people to hit the town outside the sheltered world within the casinos. The casinos themselves aren't making it easy for people to want to go either. The Atlantic City casinos have severely cut back on comps, which encourage people to come and spend even more money. Just look through the Casino Control Commission's own paperwork and you see declining comps, which makes little sense when there is so much more competition.

Just this week, a new casino is opening in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which is 90 minutes from New York City. That's in addition to the Connecticut casinos - Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, along with Empire City in Yonkers.

That's still more options for gambling and there are more choices to spend a day or a weekend or longer.

Atlantic City has the chance to be a destination, but the casinos, city and state have to do more to convince people that it deserves their tourist dollars. Chasing away tourists with more taxes and fees isn't going to do it. Neither is reducing comps when they flow regularly from other destinations.

The residents of Atlantic City deserve better.

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