The headlines this summer have touted yet another round of renewal in Atlantic City, N.J.
Reporters noted the opening of a yoga studio and a boutique chocolatier on Tennessee Avenue. They pointed to the construction site near the old high school where a branch campus of Stockton University and an office tower for South Jersey Gas were going up. But the boldest front-page stories heralded the opening of the Ocean Resort and Hard Rock Casinos in once shuttered and hulking towers on the northern end of the Boardwalk.
Atlantic City has been here before, and so have some of the reporters. They have seen casinos come and go.
Most couldn't resist a good story, the saga of a comeback kid, knocked down and beaten, but refusing to go down for the count. In these time-tested tales, the new casinos are the start of another new chapter in the city, once the Nation's Playground, whose street names made up the properties on the Monopoly board.
But there was another story this summer that warranted much more attention than it got. It's not a feel-good story or box-office material. Still, it reveals a great deal about where Atlantic City has been and where it needs to go.
In late May, just days before Mark Wahlberg showed up at the opening of Ocean Resort and executives smashed an oversized guitar at the Hard Rock to launch that venture, the Apple Store at The Pier at Caesar's announced that it was closing its doors after more than a decade in operation. Fifty-two people lost their jobs.
"Due to a sharp decline in tourism and visitors to the area, we have made the difficult decision not to extend our lease," an Apple spokesperson said in a statement.
This was only the second time ever that Apple, the world's largest corporation, had closed one of its retail stores in the United States. In 2017, a Simi Valley, California outlet shut down due to declining sales.
This is not a good sign for Atlantic City.
Since the opening of Resorts International Casino in 1978 and the start of the city's casino era, Atlantic City, like veteran reporters, has watched casinos come and go. With each closing, city leaders fretted. With each opening, they held their collective breath and hoped for the best.
But maybe it is time for a different script. Maybe it is time for Atlantic City to admit that casino-led development hasn't worked. After all, if it can't keep an Apple store or a movie theater or a full-service supermarket (all things that Atlantic City lacks) in business, how good of an economic model is it?
Yet maybe the Apple spokesperson had it wrong.
Maybe his company would have done better in Atlantic City, if it depended not just on tourists, but on the entire city for business. Maybe Atlantic City needs more than a collection of casinos always teetering on the brink of collapse, along with a few yoga studios and hipster outposts, to prosper. Maybe the Apple Store would have stayed open if casino dollars have would been invested in libraries and rec centers and lifted up local schools and local kids. Maybe it would have done better if casino revenues had been put into affordable housing rather new roads that led up to gaming hall doorsteps and marketing campaigns directed at far-flung suburbanites and retirees. Maybe it is time to address the city's public-health crisis and make sure infants are taken care of and the town isn't a food desert anymore. Maybe Atlantic City needs to double-down on Stockton and the Atlantic City Medical Center, and in general, on good, decent-paying jobs for local residents in eds and meds and other areas – the kinds of jobs that allow people to buy new cell phones or laptops every couple of years.
Maybe what Atlantic City needs, more than anything else, is a new narrative. It needs to stop looking to the casinos to save it through the tickle down from gaming profits and instead re-build itself from the bottom up as a year-round place to live and work and play.
Then the sign that Atlantic City is back will not be another casino ribbon-cutting ceremony, but the morning when the Apple Store re-opens with locals waiting at the door.