Can Atlantic City Be Saved? [POLL/AUDIO]
The economic news coming out of New Jersey's gambling mecca has been miserable. Still, leaders on the state and local level claim there is progress under the surface; one just needs to look beyond the casinos.
Last week, Atlantic City's hopes for another new casino died when Hard Rock International scrapped its plans on the boardwalk. In August, casino revenue numbers experienced only their second year-over-year increase in the last four years, and that is most likely due to the fact that Tropical Storm Irene forced the casinos to close for three days in August 2011. From 2006 to 2010, the seaside resort town lost six million visitors.
During a special hearing on Wednesday, though, testimony showed recent revitalization efforts have been making a difference and can continue to do so.
Stepping away from the State House in Trenton, the Assembly Tourism and the Arts Committee held its hearing at Dante Hall Theater-Richard Stockton College. Members of the committee, chaired by Democrat Matthew Milam, heard from several guests who deal closely with the area and state's tourism and art industries.
Among the speakers was John Palmieri, Executive Director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, who cited several results from a rescue plan adopted by the Christie Administration. The plan involved a goal of improving the city's image while enhancing safety, cleanliness and beauty in the tourism district.
"Governor Christie made it clear that no one is going to succeed in rebuilding this city without enhancing a clean and safe environment," Palmieri said.
With that in mind, the CRDA focused on increasing the number of Boardwalk Ambassadors, hospitality personnel who work closely with the police department and can offer visitors directions and advice.
"We've increased our number from 15 Ambassadors about a year ago to 60 now," Palmieri explained.
Again highlighting the need to focus on the city's non-gaming lures, Palmieri mentioned a light and sound show at Boardwalk Hall and plans to use vacant lots for community art projects. Big investments have been made into non-casino developments like the Margaritaville complex coming to Resorts and a recently-approved Bass Pro Shops.
"We understand the role that casinos play, but we need to grow from there and build the other sectors," said Palmieri.
Assemblyman Milam said he has noticed a change within the city, one that can be seen and felt.
"I think it's a great benchmark for the rest of the state," Milam said. "When Atlantic City does well, I think the rest of the state is going to do well."
The Governor said it could take years before Atlantic City experiences a full turnaround. It is still dealing with familiar challenges like poverty and violence, just blocks from the gambling halls.
While officials praise the progress made, it may not make much of a difference if no one outside the tourism district is aware of the changes. For that reason, the "Do AC" campaign launched earlier this year from the Atlantic City Alliance. Chief Strategy Officer Jeff Guaracino, speaking to the Assembly panel, said the marketing blitz has already changed the perception of Atlantic City among audiences in distant markets.
"We have to tell people in New York, Pennsylvania and the rest of the country about what Atlantic City has to offer. When they're here, we deliver," Guaracino said.
Assemblyman Chris Brown (R), whose district includes Atlantic City, said the non-gaming push is turning the city into a destination resort.
"If you want to smoke a cigarette and play a couple rounds of slots, then you'll go to Philadelphia. If you truly want to experience gaming, you're going to come to Atlantic City," Brown said.
He noted 60 percent of Las Vegas revenue comes from non-gaming attractions.