First it was a beach, then it was home to Miss America and the streets of Monopoly, then it became the gambling mecca of the East Coast. Now, again, Atlantic City, N.J., is retooling its image, determined this time to be seen as a venue for first-class entertainment that appeals to all ages.
This week, the attraction is comedian and commentator Jon Stewart, bringing his unique slant on current events to the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa for shows tonight and Saturday. Next week, Alice in Chains will be performing at the Borgata on March 12, while March 13 will see Jay-Z at the Borgata, Michael Bolton at the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino and Robin Thicke at the Tropicana Casino & Resort. Before the month is out, Alicia Keys is scheduled to play the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort (March 20), while Train is on tap at Caesars Atlantic City (March 27).
"We need to be more than just a gaming destination," says Jeff Vassar, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. "We need to get over the old perception that there's nothing here but gaming."
The problem, Vassar says, is that Atlantic City, where gambling has been legal since 1976, no longer has a monopoly on games of chance. It was the first city on the East Coast where people could legally pull slots, throw craps or play blackjack against the house. Now, states all over the Eastern seaboard, including Maryland in the near future, are opening casinos and finding ways to separate tourists from their money.
"A lot of states passed some sort of gambling law, Pennsylvania being the most significant to us," says Vassar. "We saw that, over the next several years, if someone wanted to pull a lever on a slot machine, they wouldn't have to go far."
The numbers started bearing out those fears, as the stream of visitors to Atlantic City declined steadily, from 35 million in 2006 to 33.3 million in 2007 and 31.8 million in 2008.
Clearly, some retooling was in order. Among the first big steps was to take the old convention hall, longtime home to the Miss America Pageant (which moved to Las Vegas in 2006), and use $90 million in state money to turn it into a 13,000-seat arena. In the past five years, the city has added 1.3 million square feet of retail space and 40 restaurants.
And the big acts started coming to town. Not that Atlantic City has ever been hurting for entertainment. In the old days, there were the piers and animal acts and circus atmosphere of the Boardwalk. Since the '70s, Vegas-style acts had dominated.
But Vassar and his staff were after something ... well, more modern.
"Ten years ago, you saw the same acts rotating through Atlantic City all the time," he says. "As much as I like Tom Jones and Don Rickles, they appeal to a much older audience. Now, Atlantic City is taking a much younger approach. We've got Carrie Underwood, Nickelback - you wouldn't see acts like that 10 years ago."
Fortunately, not everything about Atlantic City is being updated. The rejiggered convention center, for instance, is still between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue, locations that should sound familiar to anyone who's ever played a marathon game of Monopoly.
But city officials are happy to point out that this is no longer your father's Atlantic City.
"The idea is to wow our visitors," says Vassar, "and make permanent customers out of them."