Quiet casinos

recession tales

Bus-borne gamblers have their pick of tables and slots as the slowdown hits Atlantic City

April 11, 2009|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Mr. Rodney is in rare form today.

Wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap pulled backwards that says "I (heart) Jesus" and a loud green-and-blue tie, he's at the wheel of a Hunt Valley Motor Coach bus cruising north on Interstate 95 through Harford County, bound for the glittering casinos of Atlantic City.

"How y'all doin' this morning?" he bellows over the intercom. "Hey! We're not going to a funeral!"

To many, the funeral reference is apt, since much of Atlantic City seems enveloped in gloom these days. The casino industry has been hit hard by the recession, as well as by competing slots parlors in nearby Pennsylvania.

Revenue was down a whopping 19.4 percent last month, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission reported this week. That was the biggest monthly drop in the 31 years of legalized gambling there and surpassed a 19.2 percent drop in February.

Seven straight months of declining casino revenues have affected everyone from blackjack dealers to shopkeepers to the men who push sightseers up and down the famous boardwalk in three-wheeled "rolling chairs."

Predictably, the industry's woes have affected tour bus lines like Hunt Valley Motor Coach, which used to run buses seven days a week to Atlantic City and is now down to four a week.

"Business is down about 30 percent," says Ed Royston, who has owned the company since 1985. "Rather than carrying 20 people seven days a week, we're carrying 30 people four days a week."

Nevertheless, at a little after 10 on this sunny Wednesday, the passengers on Mr. Rodney's bus seem in relatively good spirits.

Many are regulars who banter back and forth with each other. Art Miksinski, a retired math teacher from Towson, and his friends Sidney Finglass of Monkton and George Weinberg of Harford County ride the bus once a week to try their luck at the blackjack tables.

"There are way fewer people riding the bus ... fewer people at the casinos, too," says Miksinski as a movie plays on the monitors. "But for us, it's a day of relaxation.

"We all know what the situation is with the recession," he continues. "But you can't dwell on it. Otherwise you run yourself into a frazzle."

Recession or no, the passengers say they feel the ride to Atlantic City is a pretty good deal.

The bus leaves from three sites in the Baltimore area: Pikesville, Cromwell Bridge Road in Towson and Mountain Road in Joppa.

A ticket costs $30 and each rider receives a $5 food coupon and a $30 chit to spend on slot machines or table games in the Trump Plaza casino.

Still, Royston says business began slowing dramatically five months ago and has gotten worse. Now there are many days when the casinos are so empty it feels as if the employees outnumber the gamblers.

"You have the machine of your choice," says Millie Vogel of Cockeysville, a slots player who rides the bus once a month with her husband, John Vogel, and their friend, Vince Sica of Towson.

"We came one time and you could have fired a cannon [in the casino] and not hit anyone," says Sica. "You looked down the rows of slots and saw maybe one person."

As the bus reaches the outskirts of Atlantic City, Mr. Rodney's voice booms over the intercom again.

"Y'all ready to win some money?" he asks. "... Don't give it all to Mr. Donald Trump!"

But three of the casinos run by Trump Entertainment are in bankruptcy proceedings after a court filing in mid-February.

And as the bus pulls up to Trump Plaza shortly before noon, only one other bus is discharging gamblers.

"There used to be a lot more," says Miksinski, gazing at the empty parking spaces.

Clutching their chits and How to Win at Slots guides, the passengers from the Hunt Valley bus file into Trump Plaza. Some will head later to other casinos up and down the boardwalk: the Trump Taj Mahal, Caesars, the Tropicana.

When they report back to the bus at 5:45 for the trip home, some think the casinos seem busier than they've been in a while.

"I noticed more people at the [horse racing] simulcast area at Caesars," says Sica, who says he won $40 on the day. "The last two or three times, it was mostly empty."

This is music to Ed Royston's ears. With the arrival of spring, Royston remains optimistic that better days are ahead - for him and Atlantic City.

"We can see that 30 days out from now, the bookings get better with the weather improving," he said. "In December, January and February, it's the die-hard gamblers who go up. When the weather gets better, [people] can walk the boardwalk, go shopping and do other things."

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