New Jersey State Senator Jim Whelan vigorously contested the notion that Atlantic City is a “lost cause” in a far-ranging interview he gave to nj.com on the topics of gambling and the casino industry in the Garden State.
The city of course has been reeling from the closure of four of its boardwalk properties in the last year alone, with a fifth still possible if the Taj Mahal ultimately goes down as well. Stagnating revenues have been persistent, causing massive layoffs to casino workers and leading to growing fears that the economic engine of southern New Jersey may eventually be abandoned altogether.
Topics discussed in the interview include the city’s shrinking market share, broadening its appeal beyond the gaming industry, sports betting, and casino expansion into northern New Jersey.
Market Saturation Causing Problems
Arguing that New Jersey’s gambling industry is a “victim of its own success,” Whelan placed the blame for the current state of affairs squarely on competition from casinos in neighboring states such as Connecticut and Maryland.
He insisted, however, that there are branding angles that still make Atlantic City unique in the market, such as the boardwalk which runs right along the beach. Additionally, the cluster of already existing infrastructure makes it an attractive option to potential developers.
More to Do in Atlantic City Than Just Gamble
Whelan also highlighted initiatives undertaken to diversify the attractions in the city in an attempt to broaden its appeal beyond the gambling crowd.
He mentioned shopping in the downtown area, hosting trade shows, and the conversion of the recently defunct Showboat casino into a branch campus of Stockton College as activities that could begin to revitalize the area by giving more people a reason to come.
He suggested that the presence of the college specifically could be used to attract people from many different backgrounds and industries.
He also shared that discussions are being held about potentially constructing the International Swimming Hall of Fame in the city.
Sports Betting and Expansion
The zeal with which New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has attempted to bring sports betting to Atlantic City – by openly attempting to defy a long-standing federal ban by simply refusing to comply with it (a quintessential display of the fabled NJ bravado) — has brought the wrath of both the federal courts and the nation’s largest sports league down on his head in recent months.
While Whelan agrees that sports betting would be a shot in the arm to the city’s fortunes, he cautions that the problems run much deeper:
There is no single silver bullet. There’s no magic wand,” he said.
He pointed out that should the federal ban be lifted, Atlantic City would face competition from racetracks in New Jersey itself, as well as other states, for wagers on sports just as it currently does for other types of gambling.
Casino Expansion into Northern New Jersey
Whelan also discussed a proposal by Christie to allow casino’s into the northern part of the state — where they could presumably be more competitive for casino patrons from states such as Pennsylvania and New York – while diverting revenues back to Atlantic City.
Resigned to the fact that this appears to be an inevitable result of the desire to increase the competitiveness of the state’s industry in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions, he is also committed to ensuring that the city’s interests remain protected under any plan moving forward.
He did not elaborate on the details of what a plan diverting profits from one casino to an in-state competitor might look like.
The troubles in Atlantic City are indicative of the crisis facing the broader casino industry in the United States that shows no sign of slowing down.
The economy of southern New Jersey is deeply intertwined with both the revenue generated by Atlantic City casinos themselves, as well as the foot traffic they bring to other industries in the area.
The recent failure of Internet gaming to be that fabled “magic bullet” needed to ensure their collective survival shows that Whelan’s caution about what can be done to revive the area is warranted.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether his optimism is as well.