Pulse: A.C. Journal: Hip Dreams

The Ascot Motel ought to be my favorite thing in Atlantic City right now. Opened in the 1950s and closed last year after a 40-foot chunk of its balcony collapsed, the Ascot had great bones: 73 rooms arranged in a horseshoe around a pool, a prime location on Pacific Avenue, a neon script sign, and a crystal chandelier in the lobby. I often pass it and imagine a mini version of Hollywood’s Standard or a boutique-hotel version of Stephen Starr’s original Continental or even, hell, a motel version of Northern Liberties’ recently closed Silk City Diner. In my imagined A.C., the Borgata could send low-rolling attendees of indie rock concerts to the refurbished Ascot for a genuine Jersey Shore experience; a bar with a decent jukebox that offered poker lessons and brunch could open next door; I could — and I realize how narcissistic this sounds — finally get my friends to come here. The idea is that something would begin to marry Atlantic City’s past and its future, its aspirations and its reality, its seedy roots and its glamorous ambitions.

But when the Ascot reopened recently, its only new amenity seemed to be a fresh coat of paint. Its owner is listed in property records simply, Cher-like, as “Rosenberg”; the lease is apparently long-term. I asked the man at the front desk whether he was interested in holding, say, a poolside barbecue to advertise the reopening. His face tightened into an expression of disdain. “Why would we advertise?” he asked. “We’re right here.”

It was Memorial Day weekend; the Ascot was charging $250 a night on Saturday. And that is just the problem. Atlantic City doesn’t have to be truly, organically cool to make money. Unlike Philadelphia, which needed bona fide hipsters to refurbish its abandoned houses and open its bars and BYOBs, Atlantic City has slot machines, which come with their own gravitational pull. It doesn’t need us. A.C. is content to market the idea of hip while generating the cash flow from gambling that lets it survive. One example: The Borgata was rumored to have paid the band the Killers $300,000 to play a single show at the casino last fall. For most hipsters, the Killers would certainly be a draw, but there was no way most of them could afford the ticket prices, and the Borgata wasn’t likely to help. Like most casinos, it generally awards concert tickets to high rollers.

It is precisely this sort of financing that A.C. has to quit if it wants to become Vegas East. Back in the early ’90s, when Steve Wynn transformed Vegas, his guiding principle was that every cash register in a casino should turn a profit. If A.C. wants to do the same, it needs to start by attracting non-gamblers, and it ought to start with non-gamblers who are used to a rough-around-the-edges experience — in the words of Paul Mullay, the singer for the Borgata’s regular cover band, Steamroller Picnic, guys who, like himself, “actually like the depressing stuff” about this town. A.C. should learn, in other words, how to dream small.

There are some promising signs: A few independent restaurants have been refurbished; the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is spending $100 million to improve Boardwalk landmarks; and the Hard Rock, whose legendary Las Vegas outpost is the closest a casino can come to feeling intimate and “boutique,” is slated to announce a project. But on a micro-level, the A.C. authorities have done little to woo small-timers, like a few million here and there to re-imagine some of A.C.’s dozens of crappy motels, or to drum up interest in re-energizing the decaying Atlantic Avenue. Folks working on new projects in town whisper that the city is too clubby, that regulations are absurdly stringent, and that everything requires the assistance of an expediter — the types of barriers to entry Donald Trump used to keep Wynn, his longtime foe, from starting construction on the Borgata in the first place.

But I can still daydream of a truly hip A.C. And Stephen Starr, it turns out, is interested in the Ascot. He even called a realtor to find out if it was for sale. As of press time, “Rosenberg” had yet to call him back.