Making the News

Philadelphia Inquirer

Originally Published:Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Telltale signs of hard times in Atlantic City

By Suzette Parmley
Philadelphia Inquirer

ATLANTIC CITY - It's the telltale signs that reveal the real story here.

Parking spots are easier to come by on the lower levels of the casino garages. Lines seem endless at the all-you-can-eat buffets at the gambling palaces, as customers take advantage of the lower prices.

Frugality is widespread - during what is traditionally the most profitable time of the year.

The casino industry - the backbone of Atlantic City, employing more than 38,000 - has been hit especially hard.

Gambling revenue is at an 11-year low; and for the first summer ever, the resort recorded two back-to-back months of double-digit decline: June revenue was off 14 percent; July, off 13 percent.

How bad a summer has it been?

Sunduijantsan Chavganaa, who comes here from Mongolia each summer on a work visa, said few, if any, visitors were riding rolling chairs like the one he operates along the Boardwalk.

Not even for the $5 trips, which cover up to five blocks.

"I didn't have no customers today," the 21-year-old said Thursday. "In five hours, no customers."

His comrade, Taulan Bermeta, 23, who came from Albania to operate a chair, noted: "When they do ride, they'll try to negotiate. If it's $15, they'll want $10."

On a good weekend, Friday through Sunday, Bermeta said, he was averaging $60 to $70 a day - about half what he made last summer.

Packing a punishing one-two punch with the economy has been competition, primarily from Pennsylvania, which now has nine casinos and about 25,000 slot machines.

Since the first Pennsylvania slots house debuted in November 2006, Atlantic City's slots revenue has steadily eroded. For the first seven months of this year, it is down 15.3 percent.

Table games, which Atlantic City continues to tout as a plus over Pennsylvania's casinos, did not fare much better: Revenue is down 14 percent.

"Atlantic City is experiencing another rough summer due primarily to the increasing regional competition - both in terms of the size and quality of casinos in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York - along with a bad economy and, until recently, less-than-ideal summer weather at the Shore," said Joe Weinert of Spectrum Gaming Group L.L.C., of Linwood.

Data from the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which owns and operates Atlantic City International Airport and the Atlantic City Expressway, showed a decline of nearly five million vehicles on the highway for the first seven months of this year compared with 2008.

"Basically, as a rule, if the casinos are down, then our numbers are traditionally down," authority spokeswoman Sharon Gordon said.

Foot traffic, at least, has been robust. Hotel occupancy is over 95 percent at virtually all the casino hotels. The problem, casino operators say, is that visitors are choosing activities that do not require a lot of money.

One day last week, for instance, the Boardwalk was loaded with strollers. But few were lugging shopping bags, even those who had just come from the ritzy malls attached to the casinos.

Like Joyce Selkow, 73, a widow from Lawncrest, they window-shopped instead.

"I was always a big shopper," the retired secretary said as she perused a silver necklace through the glass at Dandelion, a jewelry store at the upscale Pier Shops at Caesars. "I'm still a shopper, but not as big now. I look for sales."

For lunch that day, Selkow bypassed the fancy restaurants on the third floor of the Pier. Instead, she made a beeline for the food court, where she bought a chicken caesar wrap, a caesar salad, and iced tea for $10 and change.

"I'm afraid to spend if the economy takes a turn for the worse," she said.

Lisa Sebilia, 33, a grade-school teacher from Wanaque, N.J., stretches her $100-per-outing gambling budget by sticking to penny and nickel slot machines.

Only if she's up in slots winnings, Sebilia said, will she migrate to a $5 table game.

"I play the $5 tables more instead of the $20 ones, especially on a Friday night," said Sebilia, who celebrated her birthday here last week. As she spoke, she worked a nickel slot at Bally's.

Just a year and a half ago, Atlantic City was moving full-speed ahead, building up its arsenal of luxury hotel rooms, fine dining, entertainment, nightclubs, shopping malls, and spas - hoping high-end, nongaming attractions would give it an edge over its gambling-centric competitors.

"Unfortunately for Atlantic City, the condition of the capital markets these days is making the completion of this transformation extremely difficult," analyst Weinert said.

So strapped are the casinos that last week they asked Gov. Corzine for assistance: $20 million to better market Atlantic City as a destination.

But a representative for the governor said that money would not be coming anytime soon.

"The global recession has impacted every budget in every state," Robert Corrales said. "While we appreciate that the casinos are dealing with those same economic realities, the governor made some tough decisions about funding priorities in this budget when he cut $4 billion in spending. He made clear that his priorities are funding for education, property-tax relief, and seniors."

Edward McGarrigle, 77, said he knew quite well what was on the minds of seniors: "They're concerned about medical coverage, prescriptions, and the cost of living. I'm retired on a pension."

The former New York sign-hanger from Jackson, N.J., sitting with granddaughter Rebecca Rosenberg, 4, said he had cut his trips to Atlantic City in half this year, from twice a month to once a month. He has pared his gambling budget from $500 to $300 when he stops into Showboat to play the dollar slots.

Making a calculated decision of her own Thursday was Carmen Roman, 48, of Northeast Philly, who opted to spend $4.25 for a funnel cake from a Boardwalk vendor instead of having a sit-down meal at a casino restaurant.

She would save that for later in the evening.

"I'm doing more buffets," said Roman, a grocery-store manager. "You get more for your money."


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or


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