ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) – This time last year, Atlantic City’s 11 casinos had just completed their third straight rotten year, with revenue and market share plunging and no end in sight.
A year later, the numbers are even worse: The nation’s second-largest gambling market has lost nearly a third of its business to nearby competitors over the past four years.
As year-end figures for 2010 are released Monday afternoon, New Jersey lawmakers are preparing radical surgery for the ailing patient. Key parts of Gov. Chris Christie’s Atlantic City turnaround plan are due for votes in the state Assembly, offering hope that 2011 might be the year in which the bleeding finally stops.
They include a state-run tourism district in the casino zone and less regulation for the gambling halls.
“This is the year I actually look at the glass as being half-full,” said Bob Griffin, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts, which owns three casinos here.
He predicted the first nine months of 2011 will continue to show revenue declines, but believes that Atlantic City will finally show some revenue growth in the fourth quarter.
Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Caesars Entertainment, said the Atlantic City legislation being considered Monday will help the struggling resort shake off its losing streak.
“The governor’s stuff is going to give us some relief,” he said.
“We took a big punch, but there are some positives,” Marrandino said. “Retail business has grown dramatically. More people are paying for hotel rooms and spas. Restaurant concepts continue to work their way into the market.
“It’s been a banner year for entertainment,” he added. “Boardwalk Hall was one of the top grossing mid-sized halls in the country. Boxing matches do well here. We had a tennis match that was the highest-attended in the state.”
Atlantic City’s troubles began shortly after the first slots parlor opened in the Philadelphia suburbs in Nov. 2006. Within months, the resort’s revenues plunged as day-tripping slots players – who account for a major portion of Atlantic City’s customers – found they could play closer to home.
After watching its casino revenues go straight up for 28 years, Atlantic City had its first-ever down year in 2007. Casino bosses wished it away as a one-year aberration, and predicted things would rebound in 2008.
They didn’t. More slots parlors opened in Pennsylvania, taking more of Atlantic City’s money in 2008 and 2009. Then in July, Pennsylvania and Delaware casinos started offering table games, competing even more directly with Atlantic City.
That’s when Christie unveiled a plan to revive Atlantic City, offering greater state assistance in return for greater state control of a resort where local government had been plagued by corruption and inefficiency.
The centerpiece is a plan to create a state-run tourism district encompassing the 11 casinos and the Boardwalk. It would function as a city-within-a-city in charge of its own police protection, cleanliness, traffic and development.
Another bill is a measure long sought by the casinos that would ease up on some of New Jersey’s strict casino regulation.
One bill that Atlantic City staunchly opposes sets up a commission to study how well the reforms are working, but also to explore the future feasibility of casino gambling in Bergen County, most likely at the Meadowlands Racetrack.
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