Off the Cuff: December 2006

From the air, as my plane came in low over the barren wasteland, it looked like the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz — a magical place, something unreal. In fact, what was spread before me is a little unreal, rising out of a desert, fed by a vast underground aqueduct: an oasis of grand fun and games, the great American city of casinos, showrooms, restaurants and hotels. A few weekends ago, I finally made it to Las Vegas, a place I’d never laid eyes on.

On the other hand, I’ve had a home in Margate for more than 30 years, and as a boy I spent summers in Atlantic City, so I’ve had a bird’s-eye view of the height and the fall and the recent hope for our local City of Fun. Now I was finally seeing, and experiencing firsthand, what A.C. hopes to become. Las Vegas is a marvelous place, a city that invites you in, takes care of your every need. Now I have one hope: That what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Because if it does, Atlantic City will be in trouble once again.

To start with, though, there are plenty of reasons for local optimism. We’ve seen the Borgata’s opening three years ago followed by great new restaurants and high-end shopping; billion-dollar expansions and remodeling are in the works. Deep-pockets energy is making Atlantic City a different and exciting place.

Still, I worry. I’ve talked to casino executives and restaurant owners, and they point to two problems: The city is still largely made up of casinos surrounded by slums, and A.C. is run by insular incompetents who seem to believe their main duties are throwing up roadblocks to development, making sure relatives get added to the payroll, and padding their own résumés. (Mayor Bob Levy recently admitted that he never served with the Green Berets in Vietnam, as he’d been claiming for 40 years.) As State Senator Bill Gormley succinctly puts it, “There’s no cure for stupidity.” But it’s worse than that; local execs feel like they have to jump through hoops just to get a sign lighted or casino wall repainted. “They must buy red tape by the 500-foot roll,” one restaurateur complained to me, and then went on to point out how Vegas is the opposite: The regulatory door swings wide for new business. The city and casinos and other businesses actually work together.

Here, government small-mindedness hurts the look and feel and accessibility of the city in small and large ways: On weekends, for example, the trash sometimes doesn’t get picked up on the Boardwalk; the city is only now — 30 years after the casinos arrived — considering a comprehensive traffic plan. Bill Gormley and casino executives believe that with billions of dollars in investment at stake — the 48 blocks of Atlantic City, Gormley says, make up a bigger economy than many states — we’ll overcome the local roadblocks.

They better be right. Follow the steps that got A.C. to this point, and you can see how the city is at a tipping point: Through the ’80s and ’90s, the casinos were happy to hump along making money off of bussing in bread-and-butter slots players, but when Vegas opened the Mirage in 1989, that city started on the road to becoming a real vacation destination. Which, in turn, got Wall Street rethinking what Atlantic City should be, which led to the Borgata opening, which didn’t happen a moment too soon, given that gambling in Philadelphia is poised to take off. If most Philly-area gamblers (a sizable piece of current A.C. casino business) will no longer be inclined to make the trek down the Expressway, then Atlantic City must be perceived as a different, hipper, happening place — a mecca of fun, Las Vegas East — now.

I would like to see a state takeover of the city in order to bypass the hopeless local government altogether, but that would be illegal. Bill Gormley suggested to me that Governor Corzine could be the architect of a Marshall Plan for Atlantic City, and he would get bipartisan support for the idea. I am quite sure the governor recognizes how important a thriving Atlantic City is to the future of his state.