Atlantic City celebrated the opening of two shuttered casinos last week as if it somehow marked the rebirth of the shabby Shore town.
But casinos didn’t save Atlantic City when it had an East Coast monopoly on gambling for decades. Now, that Atlantic City faces fierce competition from dozens of casinos in surrounding states, it is even less likely that more casinos will somehow revive the seaside resort.
To be sure, the two casinos hired a combined 7,000 people and spent millions on renovations. That’s certainly an improvement compared with 2014, when five casinos closed, 13,000 jobs were lost, and the city almost declared bankruptcy.
But the fundamental problem of building an economy dependent on gambling remains: busing in day trippers, low rollers and the elderly to gamble inside windowless casinos does very little to grow Atlantic City’s broader economy.
In fact, the business model for casinos is designed to mainly strip wealth from customers. Much of the casino revenues goes out of the local economy to pad the bottom line of out-of-town companies. For example, Donald Trump’s casinos filed for bankruptcy four times, yet he boasted in 2016: “I made a lot of money in Atlantic City.”
New Jersey legalized casinos in 1976 under the guise that it would be a “unique tool” to support urban redevelopment. But outside of the gleaming casinos that have been built, little has changed in Atlantic City.
The poverty rate is 37 percent compared with 11 percent in the rest of New Jersey. The crime rate is one of the highest in the country. The bankruptcy rate is also higher than across the state.
Even most of the vaunted casino jobs – so often cited by politicians as a reason to support gambling — are barely above a living wage. In 2015, the New Yorker magazine interviewed a cocktail waitress who started working at the Plaza in 1984. Thirty years later, she was making $8.99 an hour. In 2016, the Associated Press reported that Atlantic City’s casino workers were only making 80 cents an hour more than they did 12 years before.
Even a project manager for a Wynn casino in Philadelphia that never materialized said no one should look to casinos to revive cities “because that’s not what casinos do.”
That may explain why Atlantic City has struggled for decades while property values along other Jersey Shore towns have skyrocketed. As research from the National Association of Realtors shows, casinos have a negative impact on property values.
Indeed, the biggest impact the two revived casinos will have is on the other seven casinos in Atlantic City. The gambling market along the East Coast is saturated. As such, the new casinos will mainly cannibalize customers from existing gambling halls. That makes talk of allowing casinos in North Jersey an even bigger folly.
Until Atlantic City diversifies its economy and capitalizes on its oceanfront location, don’t look for more gambling to solve its woes. But that didn’t stop Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam from proclaiming that the opening of two casinos signals that “Atlantic City’s almost back – almost.”
Don’t bet on it.