Atlantic City Is Not a Happy Place

That's why I never go there. But the struggling resort town has all the ingredients to be a happy place in the future.



I live outside of Philadelphia, less than 75 minutes away from Atlantic City. But I haven’t visited Atlantic City in more than a decade. Why is this?

It takes less time to go there than New York or DC and other shore towns. There are beautiful hotels. There is no shortage of great entertainment. There are beaches and a boardwalk. It’s the ocean. It’s a resort. Yet … I just don’t go there. Over the years, whenever my wife and I want to take our kids to the shore we always ignore Atlantic City, opting instead for a day at Margate or to rent a house for a week in Ocean City. We are not alone. Most, if not all of my friends, neighbors, even clients are the same way. My mother, who used to go there at least monthly to gamble hasn’t been there in years. Why should she? There are plenty of other gambling alternatives right here in and around the city.

But it’s not just the gambling. Atlantic City is an awful place to visit. The town is depressing, sketchy and seedy. The casinos are too loud, too brightly lit and too full of people who look like they just finished filming a scene of American Hustle. The entertainment is great, but too expensive and in most cases not even worth the drive and the hassle. The food is great, but also too expensive and why go all the way there when there’s plenty of great food here in town? The boardwalk is not as good as Ocean City, the ocean not as inviting as Avalon. The gamblers that are bussed in from Philly and New York City truly look like it’s their last-chance power drive. This is not a happy place now and it never has been. And if I’m going to go away with my wife or on vacation with my family I want to go to a happy place.

But yet, there’s hope for Atlantic City. It can be happy.

The town is located on the ocean! It is midway between two enormous cities, linked by parkways, highways and train lines. It has a great airport. It has a fascinating history, Nucky Thompson notwithstanding. There are tall, new, glittering — albeit now-empty — buildings with panoramic views of the sea and space big enough to accommodate half of the Middle East. There is a small-but-loyal community of people who live and work in the city and its environs. And there are a string of other great shore towns that lead from it to the tip of South Jersey. It’s a place that has all the ingredients necessary to make it a success in the future. Just add water.

Atlantic City doesn’t need rescuing. It doesn’t need a facelift. It just needs a larger community that lives there and cares about it and makes it happier. That’s why Margate, Ventnor, Avalon, Cape May and other shore towns thrive. They have a strong base of local residents who watch over their own. They have property owners who enjoy their houses even in the winter. They have strong local governments who rigidly enforce their rules in order to make their towns nice. They have businesses that look after each other, with many that stay open throughout the year. They’re not only nice places to visit. They’re nice places to live. People want to own property in those places. It appreciates. And it’s appreciated. Atlantic City is not a nice place to live. And it shows. But this can change. There is a way.

And the answer is gambling. Not more, but less. Not abolished, but restrained. Not expanded (like the Governor this week proposed) but limited. What I’ve learned from smart business people is that businesses come and go. Product lines are discontinued. Building are bought and sold. Things run their course. People move on. Things change. Gambling has had its day in Atlantic City. But that day is over. There is too much competition elsewhere, too many other options for gamblers. Like any business, Atlantic City needs to change its direction. Sure, there’s room for some gambling. But the emphasis should be on ways to increase home values in and around the city. How to attract residents. How to entice me to not only visit, but also think about maybe buying a property there – because admit it, don’t we all think about his when we visit other shore towns?

What Atlantic City needs is just a few good anchors. A large corporation or two. A major university. Large organizations that will attract small businesses to service them. This would attract people in and out of the city every day. These are not the people from American Hustle or the ones bussed in from Queens. These are the people who will eventually need somewhere closer to live, who will build roots and invest in their own community, who will make other properties in the city more attractive. Atlantic City could become less of a city and more of a town, like other shore towns. But with a few nicer hotels (and even a little gambling, why not), great access and a history. Instead of promoting new resorts and gambling, New Jersey’s leaders should make it as easy as possible, through tax breaks and financial incentives, for companies and universities (do I hear marine research, anyone?) to move there. This is not a baseball field in Iowa. You built it. It’s all there. Now you can make them come.

And I do want to come back to Atlantic City someday. I want to walk around and appreciate its beauty, its family atmosphere, its happiness. Maybe I want to play a little blackjack or go to an expensive restaurant. I would like to take my family to the beach and the boardwalk and let my kids run around freely with their friends, like they can now do in other shore towns. I would like to consider buying a place there.  Yes, that would be something, wouldn’t it?

Follow @GeneMarks on Twitter.