Five showplace resort-casinos are planned for Atlantic City Atlantis to feature bigger marine display than Baltimore aquarium


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - At least five new resort-casinos are planned here - monstrous, Las Vegas-style themed palaces that will be far more elaborate than anything Atlantic City has ever seen.

They'll feature Broadway-type productions, with dazzling special effects, that will cost as much as $40 million to stage.

They'll have attractions like thrill rides and giant aquariums and glitzy Hollywood premieres.

They'll be filled with unusual cafes and restaurants, and hip specialty stores that'll make the mall seem dull.

With so much going on, gambling will seem almost secondary.

And that's just the point.

Transforming Atlantic City?

What the new casinos hope to do is transform Atlantic City from a gambler's day trip into a full-scale "destination resort," a place where even non-betting tourists will stay for days at a time.

It's worked in Las Vegas - a crop of new resort-casinos along the Strip has drawn hordes of tourists who come mostly for the shows, the shopping, the restaurants and the amusements.

And now, the same formula is coming to Atlantic City.

Three sprawling resort-casinos are planned for the Marina section next to Harrah's: Steve Wynn's new casino, to be called Jardin, and two imports from Las Vegas - the Stardust and Circus Circus.

Two others are expected on the Boardwalk - MGM Grand and Planet Hollywood. Still another entry into the tourist market will emerge from Resorts, Atlantic City's first gambling hall. It's got a new owner, who plans to remake it into a resort-casino called Atlantis, with marine displays nearly twice the size of the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

Everywhere you turn these days, Atlantic City is getting ready for the tourists. Many of the current casinos are expanding, and more hotel rooms are being built. A new convention center is about to open, and the airport has been expanded.

It could all come together by the end of 1999, when the new resort-casinos hope to be open.

None of the casinos have been built yet - in fact, most are in the early planning stages - and success for Atlantic City's second wave is far from guaranteed.

Neighborhood residents, complaining they're being squeezed out, are battling several of the new casinos.

Atlantic City must prove it can attract tourists even during harsh East Coast winters. And there is another, less tangible obstacle that must be overcome - the city's image as a flawed fantasyland where limousines glide past desperate poverty.

The new casinos coming here don't seem to be worried. They say they're confident that Atlantic City can follow Las Vegas' lead, and get rich in the tourist trade.

Unless you're a hard-core gambler, there's not much to do in Atlantic City these days.

The 13 casinos offer table games and slots, though little else. Casino shops and restaurants are mostly for people who just want a quick break from the casino floor, and the showroom entertainment doesn't offer much beyond what people can get in their hometowns.

That's the way it's been since the casinos came here in 1978. And things wouldn't be changing now - and perhaps not for many more years - if it weren't for a combination of circumstances.

It began with the recession of the early 1990s, when states

across the country - desperate for new jobs and taxes - started legalizing riverboat casinos.

Atlantic City began to fear for its life. There was suddenly competition everywhere. Even Philadelphia, Atlantic City's biggest customer, was considering riverboat gambling.

Everyone here knew that unless Atlantic City could become bigger and better than the competition, one day it would wake up to find itself just another casino town.

Panic-stricken, the casinos screamed that they couldn't grow - not as long as they were handcuffed by repressive state regulation.

That was the same complaint the casinos had always made. But for the first time, New Jersey started listening. And for good reason - its own interests were now at stake.

Atlantic City's casinos contribute $300 million a year to state programs for the elderly and disabled. If Atlantic City gets hurt, so will New Jersey.

And so, in a scenario almost unthinkable just a few years before, the usually adversarial Casino Control Commission actually started asking the casinos which regulations they didn't like.

"We want it to be a profitable business," explains Bradford Smith, the former state senator who heads the commission. "What the legislators didn't want to see is any of these programs funded by the general treasury."

For the first time, the casinos got decision-making power over such things as how much experience a dealer needed to be hired, and how a casino could be designed.

Smith insists the state didn't give up its primary mandate - "to keep out the bad guys and to keep track of revenues." But, he adds, "We are out of making business decisions for the casinos."

State's strategy worked

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