Last Vegas of the East? Atlantic City: Casino boom, convention center may finally turn town's fortunes around.

June 29, 1996

GAMBLING HAS NOT been kind to Atlantic City since the first casino opened 18 years ago. A once-popular beach resort sank to new lows even as casinos raked in profits. The middle class left town, crime soared, the old downtown ceased to exist. Except for casinos on the Boardwalk and at the marina area, Atlantic City resembled an impoverished ghost town.

But now things are improving. Due to tax breaks and less regulatory control of non-gambling activities in the casinos, business is booming. A $4.5 billion expansion is under way.

New Jersey's thrust is on economic development beyond the tables. The largest convention center on the East Coast will soon open, along with a 500-room non-casino hotel. Restaurants are returning. Stores, theaters and other entertainments are opening.

All this is good news for the shore city of 38,000. There is still concern the boom will bypass local residents while leaving them with traffic gridlock, renewed housing shortages, higher rents and a city more sharply split between haves and have-nots. Still, there is reason for hope this time.

New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's approach is to turn Atlantic City into a true resort and convention destination. Hotel occupancy rates have soared to 92 percent. Expanded casinos stress more rooms, restaurants, shops and non-gambling attractions that should appeal to vacationers and conventioneers who now flock to Las Vegas.

Still, this saga illustrates the pitfalls of trying to turn around a town's fortunes with casinos. Atlantic City has suffered for 18 years. No wonder other East Coast cities and states -- including Maryland -- looked at its plight and then rejected casino gambling. That's still sound advice -- even if Atlantic City's local residents may finally hold a winning hand.

Pub date: 06/29/96

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