Atlantic City’s Last, Last, Last, Last, Last, Last Chance

In 1976, the Shore's most famous resort turned to gambling to save itself. Three and a half decades later, there's just one thing that might prevent its ultimate demise: turning away from gambling

Citywide, casino profits plummeted nearly 61 percent between 2006 and 2010. Adjusted for inflation, those profits are now at their lowest level since the early ’80s. Not even the mighty Borgata is immune: Last month, for a fifth straight quarter, it reported falling revenue compared to the same period one year earlier. Gaming executives say Atlantic City is now getting by on about $2 billion less in annual gaming revenue than it was in 2006.

To prevent gaming’s collapse from taking the whole town with it, Atlantic City is banking on a pair of big changes: a state takeover of half the city, and a fundamental market readjustment on the part of the casinos, which now recognize that their gambling-dominated models won’t work in a world where there are craps tables in Chester and baccarat in Bensalem. Revel, the striking new resort on the north end of the Boardwalk, slated to open next May, most completely represents the new thinking: gaming as just a piece of a total resort experience, one that actually embraces Atlantic City’s greatest assets—the Boardwalk, the ocean and the wide beach. The new state “tourism district” may be just as important. It exists primarily to eliminate, or at least better hide, Atlantic City’s enduring seediness, which Governor Chris Christie is convinced is the real reason for the city’s problems.

If these changes work, Atlantic City might finally become what its boosters have always billed it as: a playground for the masses-, equally enticing for families, bachelorette parties, and sophisticated couples on a weekend escape. If they don’t, well, the doomsday scenario is easy to imagine. Casinos begin to abandon Absecon Island. Unemployment rises, crime spikes, and the city becomes Camden on the ocean, with a Boardwalk instead of an aquarium. The great irony, of course, is that gambling was billed as the only alternative to just such a fate when it was legalized back in 1976.

I’M ON THE 300 BLOCK of Oriental Avenue, not far from the Boardwalk and just a few hundred yards from the Revel tower, when the cop tells me to scram.

The police are there because a man was shot moments ago. Unsolicited, a guy who calls himself Jimmy approaches and tells me the whole story: “So this dude was on his bike, right, just cruising, and then pop, pop, pop, pop, pop—like 10 times. So then they run, right? The guy on the bike, he’s hit in the leg, right, but he kinda runs off. And so does the guy with the gun.” Jimmy doesn’t want to tell me his last name, but he’s the sort of character you see a lot in Atlantic City. He’s tan—a too-dark, wrinkly street tan, not a beach tan—and he has big brown eyes and teeth with wide gaps. He’s jumpy and excited, and he’s wearing a large brown backpack. I thank Jimmy. He asks me for some change.