The closure of four of Atlantic City's 12 casinos is rippling through South Jersey and being analyzed all over the country. But what outsiders fail to appreciate is that while A.C. is dying, neighboring Shore communities continue to thrive based on more localized support. Unlike these other communities, Atlantic City lacks a core constituency.
Around here, where you were raised often determines where you will vacation. While growing up in Doylestown, our family - like many of our neighbors - became attached to Ocean City. Initially, we really were "shoobies," who would use showering facilities on the O.C. boardwalk that are long gone, before driving home from a day trip. We then graduated to "Mrs. A's boarding house," where my parents shared the bed while my brother and I slept on the floor. Next, it was the Impala Motel, where from the back of a '66 Chevy we were excited by the sign that then hung out front advertising "air conditioning, three pools, colored TV." Finally, we began renting places for a week at a time. We'd arrived!
When I was old enough to make my own Shore choice, I naturally returned to Ocean City. Fond memories of family dinner (after waiting in line) at Watson's, dessert at Copper Kettle Fudge, and a slice from Mack & Manco's lured me back. And with kids of my own, I made sure O.C. was the first Shore town they experienced.
There is nothing unique about my summers. Change the name of the Shore town and its favorite haunts, and my experience is no different from anyone else's who grew up in New Jersey or eastern Pennsylvania. We loved being taken down the Shore by our parents. When we could drive ourselves, we returned to those same communities. And, eventually, brought our own children to where we spent time in the summer. That's always been the cycle, all along the 127-mile Jersey coastline.
Many of the original destination choices broke along ethnic and religious lines, and the patterns persist more on account of habit than anything else. Give me a home zip code and a bit of background information, and I think I can identify your Shore community of choice.
Our sons are now teens able to drive. While they like and appreciate Ocean City (we were there for a weekend two weeks ago), they have recently been drawn to Stone Harbor and Avalon. Does that violate the migration model? Nope. I was raised in Central Bucks among families that chose Ocean City. They go to school with kids on the Main Line whose families have Shore towns of their own. It'll be interesting to see where they take their kids. I'm betting it won't be Atlantic City.
A.C. isn't even in the mix, because what the town most lacks is loyalty.
Not since World War II has a sizable constituency regarded A.C. as its Shore town. My dad is emblematic of the last frontier. He's in his 80s and has fond memories of his family driving from the coal regions in Northeastern Pennsylvania to Atlantic City in the 1940s (without air conditioning!) to stay in what was then luxury at the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall. Then, Atlantic City really was "America's playground." Men and women strolled the Boardwalk in formal wear. Celebrities performed on Steel Pier. Sinatra sang at the 500 Club. But when A.C. began to deteriorate, my father opted to take his family to Ocean City, even while his mother stayed loyal to A.C. her entire life.
Grams never stopped loving A.C. because of the memories it provided her. In fact, in the summer of 1988, 12 years after the legalization of casino gambling put some life back into the town, my father took his mother to A.C. on a weekend that coincided with the Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks heavyweight title match that I was attending. Grams may have been an octogenarian, but she wasn't beyond allowing us to push her through a turnstile without a ticket so she could watch the fight - all 91 seconds of it. (Lesson learned: No one stops ambitious 86-year-olds.)
The end for Atlantic City came when my father's generation stopped taking their kids to the Shore town they had visited and instead began to make memories elsewhere.
The gambling experiment made sense at a time when gaming existed only in Las Vegas. But now that you can gamble anywhere, the states have cannibalized one another, and consequently, A.C.'s revenue has been cut in half since 2006, according to the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. With New York voters approving a referendum to expand casino gaming there, that trend for A.C. isn't going to change.
Once again, A.C. is at a crossroads. Where many argue for yet another costly, grandiose experiment (convention mecca, college campus, tech center), I say it's time to scale back the ambitions and imitate the neighbors.
Those nearby towns are thriving. People are paying thousands of dollars to live on top of one another for a single week, while the A.C. landscape still resembles a Halloween pumpkin with every other tooth missing. A.C. will turn around only when it has lured families willing to establish a beachhead and say, "This is our town," and their kids return.
What Atlantic City most needs are memories.
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124 and seen hosting "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.