Making the News

Press of Atlantic City

Originally Published:Saturday, January 9, 2010

A.C. wasn't always turned on: Stockton professors compile history of gaming in resort

By Donald Wittkowski
Press of Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY - In the early 1970s, the idea of melding a hopelessly corrupt industry with a hopelessly corrupt city seemed preposterous.

At that time, the mob had its tentacles in the Las Vegas casino industry and political corruption flourished in Atlantic City and New Jersey.

"So the notion of bringing an inherently corrupt industry into the most corrupt city in a state with serious corruption issues was generally perceived as laughable," recalled Steven P. Perskie, a former New Jersey lawmaker.

Perskie makes that observation in the introduction of a new book that chronicles the history of the Atlantic City casino industry - from its improbable start to its hugely profitable heyday to its current three-year slump.

"Casino Gaming in Atlantic City: A Thirty Year Retrospective" is a project by The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey's Institute for Gaming Management. Stockton faculty members Israel Posner and Brian J. Tyrrell edited the book, which includes contributions from other Stockton professors and industry experts.

"It's not a beach read," cautioned Posner, who heads the Institute for Gaming Management. "It reminds me of the almanacs I would buy as a kid. It's designed to inform."

While some may be intimidated by the academic tone and voluminous financial data, the book comes alive with the help of colorful nuggets about Atlantic City's corrupt political system in the 1970s and its rise from dying resort town to the nation's second-largest casino market.

Perskie, a Superior Court judge who plans to retire Feb. 1, orchestrated the 1976 New Jersey referendum that legalized casino gambling while serving as a state legislator. In the book, he noted that just two years before, voters rejected another state ballot question to bring casinos to New Jersey.

"As difficult as it is to imagine today, now that casino gaming has gained full legitimacy nationally and in financing circles (Main Street and Wall Street) as a credible industry and investment option, in 1974 we were dealing with the broad public perception (not entirely unfair) that only mobsters and union thugs were involved in it," Perskie writes.

From the day Resorts International opened May 26, 1978, as the first casino, Atlantic City enjoyed explosive growth that continued through the early 1980s, with eight other gaming halls. A slowdown in which only three more casinos would open over the next decade brought criticism that the gambling experiment had failed.

"(Atlantic City was) a place that just didn't happen. Write this down: Good night, Atlantic City. It's a new dawn for everyone else," Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn famously proclaimed in 1993.

Wynn's quote is recounted in a chapter written by Michael Pollock, managing director of the Linwood-based casino consulting firm Spectrum Gaming Group. Pollock describes how Atlantic City recovered from its earlier woes and ultimately was redefined by the arrival of the posh Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in 2003. Then, he noted, came the recession of 2008 and 2009 that contributed to the city's current three-year revenue struggle and development slump.

"Most of the plans for new development have faded as credit markets dried up, and Atlantic City reported a series of declines in gross gaming revenue," Pollock wrote.

Despite today's problems, Posner and Tyrrell argue that casino gambling has been an unqualified success for Atlantic City - and for all of New Jersey, for that matter. The gaming industry has created tens of thousands of jobs, spurred billions of dollars in investment and is a huge source of tax revenue benefiting the entire state, they said.

"I can't imagine what Atlantic City would be like without it," said Tyrrell, director of Stockton's New Jersey Center for Hospitality and Tourism Research.

In the book's epilogue, titled "Atlantic City: The Next Act," Posner, Tyrrell and Stockton professor Lewis Leitner point to the intense competition casinos feel from slot parlors in surrounding states and the need for Atlantic City to "reinvent itself" again to meet the public's fickle entertainment demands.

They say new retail shops, restaurants, spas, nightclubs and other nongaming attractions must be mixed with the slot machines and table games to transform the city into a more appealing tourist destination during its "post-gambling-centric" era.

"For the people of New Jersey, and especially for the South Jersey region, one can only hope that what lies ahead is a 'New Atlantic City,'" they conclude.

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