25 years later, Atlantic City hasn't cashed in on casinos

March 04, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - The drive along Pacific Avenue, in the shadows of the giant hotel casinos here, invites comparisons to Park Heights Avenue, on the edges of Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Both are shabby eyesores on the periphery of substantial gambling money. Both invite the inevitable question: Where does the money go after it leaves people's pockets?

Atlantic City famously started opening its casinos about a quarter-century ago. The way gambling interests pitched them to a suspicious public invokes comparisons to today's slot machine pitch in Annapolis: The new gambling money will pay for better schools, we are told. It will save the dying racetrack business, and the overflow might even juice the moribund neighborhoods on the edges of all that new money.

It sounds intoxicating. But then you drive along Pacific Avenue here, or Atlantic Avenue a block west, or Arctic Avenue beyond that, and wonder what went wrong. The sense of new money stops at the hotel doors. Just outside those doors, all the streets that parallel the twinkly boardwalk casinos seem like municipal afterthoughts.

They're a string of pawnshops, check-cashing businesses, bail-bond operations, boarded-up buildings and shabby housing. Toward the ocean inlet, several blocks north of the casinos, there are some new rowhouses that look pretty nice. But the key word is "new." Why has it taken so long for Atlantic City to show more visible signs of so much money that was supposed to help a town in so much trouble?

"When the gambling people made their pitch, this was not what we saw coming," says Dr. Michael Katz, as he drives slowly along Pacific Avenue. Katz's sentimental attachment to his hometown is palpable. He grew up in Atlantic City amid a large extended family but, like many natives, moved to Margate, about a 15-minute drive from the casinos, several decades back.

Atlantic City was already having a rough time back then. Tourists looking for beaches had discovered more amusing places, easily available by plane. With the town slowly drying up, the gambling interests arrived, painting castles in the air.

They didn't entirely lie. There's life inside the casinos, which are vast supermarkets of longing and greed. But for all the billions of dollars that have changed hands in the past 25 years, where is the anticipated improvement on the street?

"Take the hospital, for example," says Katz. He means the Atlantic City Medical Center, dwarfed by the huge hotels across Pacific Avenue. "The emergency room is terribly overburdened. The rooms upstairs are old and really outdated. It's very sad to see this."

About 15 years ago, Katz headed the residency program at the hospital. Having heard all the public pitches about civic-mindedness, Katz asked for a meeting with the leader of the casino operators association. He said the hospital needed to bring in more residents to help with patient care. He wanted donations to bring in 10 more residents. It would have cost each casino about $25,000.

"You know how much $25,000 is to these casinos?" Katz asks now. "In terms of the money they take in every year? But they turned us down flat, saying it wasn't the kind of thing they were interested in." Left unsaid: If the gambling folks aren't interested in helping the city's hospital, located right across the street, then exactly whom do they want to help beyond themselves?

This is a worrisome thought for the state of Maryland, where the General Assembly now goes through convulsions over slot machines. Everybody hears how much they will help revive horse racing. Everybody hears how much the schools count on this money. And, around Pimlico Race Course, where many of the slots would be installed, there is hope that the money could be spread around the Park Heights community that was once one of the city's glories but has decayed pathetically for the past three decades.

The problem there is twofold. Nobody particularly trusts the pitches from the gambling interests. And nobody particularly knows how the money might be spread around, so astonishingly empty of substance were Gov. Robert Ehrlich's proposals to the legislature last week.

That's disappointing to those of us who have backed slots. The arguments about gambling morality are hypocritical in a state where lottery bets are enticed by millions of dollars in advertising each year. But the next step is crucial: How, exactly, would slot machine profits and tax money be spread around?

Here on Pacific Avenue, a sign outside Bail Bonds of America declares "Twenty-Four Hour Service Any Day." Not coincidentally, the casinos are also open 24 hours every day. Next door, doing a brisk business, is the Royal Pawn Shop. Royalty aside, it's not the kind of business Atlantic City envisioned when the gambling boys first came to town and promised castles in the air.

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