Boy, do we suck as neighbors.
For almost two centuries, “America’s Playground” has really functioned as Philly’s Playground: Walt Whitman made the journey some 130 years ago, arriving at a “flat, still sandy, still meadowy region” with “salt waves and sandy shores ad libitum.” Atlantic City’s first official business was Aunt Millie’s Boarding House, and its incorporation corresponded with the opening of the rail line connecting it to Philly. And through every one of A.C.’s incarnations, Philadelphians, sometimes carrying their lunches in their shoeboxes, came to call.
But take a trip down the Expressway now, and you’ll find a resort on life support. For the second year in a row — and just the second time in their history — A.C. casinos saw revenue fall in 2008, with December the worst month ever. Six of the city’s 11 casinos may be en route to bankruptcy court. And while it’s tempting to chalk it all up to a flailing economy, there’s this: Pennsylvania’s casinos are thriving. Revenue in 2008 was among the best on the East Coast; December’s was the best. And with powerhouses like mega-developer Dan Keating, super-lawyer Dick Sprague, real estate mogul Ronald Rubin and Comcast-Spectacor’s Ed Snider moving inexorably to get Philly’s own two gaming halls up and running, things only look to get worse for A.C. With one-fourth of that city’s tourists historically coming from Eastern PA, Philly, says gaming analyst Harvey B. Perkins, is Atlantic City’s “number one threat, without a doubt.”
At least publicly, resort leaders are putting on a brave face. Former mayor and current State Senator Jim Whelan says A.C. can still pick itself up and finally blossom into a full-fledged national destination. (The just-launched NYC-A.C. luxury express train is certainly an attempt to cast a wider net.) “Despite competition,” says Mayor Lorenzo Langford, “at the end of the day, we’re going to be all right.”
But considering that 75 percent of the city’s revenue comes from gaming — not to mention the hundreds of millions siphoned by the state — that just might be the greatest bet A.C.’s ever wagered.