Beyond Boardwalk, Atlantic City rolls craps

Casinos' promise falls short for much of city

? Nearly 25 years after this city’s revitalization began with the opening of a Resorts International casino, there are still neighborhoods where prosperity is but a rumor.

Along the Boardwalk, business booms in many of the city’s 12 casinos, but dozens of Atlantic Avenue shops and restaurants never have hit the jackpot they expected from casino-bound customers. For them, the decay of this seaside resort hasn’t gone away.

Still, many people credit casino gambling with remaking Atlantic City, although they also acknowledge that mistakes were made.

“Did it work? Yes, it worked,” said Carl Zeitz, a former member of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. “It delivered on the promises, and I was a skeptic. All the horribles were true. But yes, it worked.”

In a Nov. 2, 1976, referendum, New Jersey voters agreed to let Atlantic City have casinos.

Resorts International opened May 26, 1978, with long waits for people to even enter the building and gamblers standing three- and four-deep at the craps tables. From that start grew an industry that now employs more than 46,000 people and wins $4.2 billion a year from gamblers.

But in other ways, casinos crapped out. They were brought in to reverse the city’s deteriorating Boardwalk hotels and ramshackle neighborhoods, but progress was slow in many ways.

In retrospect, regulators and casino executives here blame the original casino legislation, which required that casinos have at least 500 hotel rooms and corresponding amounts of convention space, restaurants and retail stores.

A musician plays in front of the casino mecca on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. Despite 25 years of solid casino expansion in Atlantic City, community growth outside the industry remains slow. Some contend the casinos' self-sufficiency is to blame.

The amenities paid off for the casinos. But they hurt Atlantic City businesses, which were left out as gamblers ate, shopped and attended concerts inside the casino buildings.

There were about 100 full-service restaurants in the city when casinos began to open. Now, there are 14, according to Mayor Lorenzo Langford.

“We kind of shot ourselves in the foot when we created the legislation that casinos would be all-encompassing, self-contained,” said Langford, a former casino dealer. “The city’s business district was destroyed because people had no reason to leave the casinos,” he said.

About 25 percent of Atlantic City’s residents still live at or below the poverty line, Langford said.

But casino taxes have helped build an $83 million high school, a new minor league baseball stadium, a new bus station and dozens of new housing developments.

More taxes are due from a $1 billion casino named The Borgata, planned for a July 2003 opening.

Many officials credit the success of the casino venture to a regulatory code aimed at keeping gamblers in and mobsters out.

The code helped New Jersey acquire a reputation as having the most effective casino regulatory structure in the world. It required intensive background checks on everyone from chambermaids to CEOs, looking for financial problems, criminal records or any other personal history blemish.

It also required background checks for vendors and suppliers, under the theory that if organized crime was going to infiltrate casinos, it would try to do so first by doing business with them.

The ultra-strict regulation, which successfully has kept Atlantic City casinos free of mob taint, has made New Jersey’s regulatory system a model for other states.

Michigan and other states that later allowed casino gambling looked to New Jersey for guidance.