Wondering where Atlantic City would be without casinos

Wed, 08 Jun 2011 15:03
From the beginning, even to this day, casino gambling has been a volatile issue in Atlantic City. Was it all worthwhile? My friends who live out of this area often ask me that question, knowing that I have spent some time there, first as a tourist, then as a resident under military control, and more recently as a reporter. I fudge with an answer because the broad picture requires fudging more than, say, pulling saltwater taffy. I tell my friends that I prefer the old Atlantic City, the one with the Steel Pier, the Million Dollar Pier, the Chalfonte Hotel where I stayed, and the Shelbourne Hotel where my wife and I attended a great New Year’s Eve party, the bandleader always had a glass in his hand and the music never seemed to stop from around 11 p.m. to 2 o’clock in the morning. I presume they did not have a strong union then. I remember the old Atlantic City when I walk past the still standing Claridge Hotel, where we honeymooned after getting lost en route to Atlantic City on new roads that were under construction. My friends persist that I am skirting the issue. Still they wonder, should Atlantic City have turned to Casino City and all the problems that come with such a change? To arrive at what amounts to an inconclusive answer to that question, one must review the history of the big resort by the sea. The decline starts just before World War II when there were signs that there was trouble, perhaps not in the River City of “The Music Man” fame, but certainly in Atlantic City, which had many music men and women, too – many of whom left. There was respite for a few years when the Army Air Corps took over the city, but soon after the war, doom and gloom returned as air travel became more popular, tourists flew to places like Florida, the Caribbean, and a new place with slot machines and roulette wheels called Las Vegas. Something had to be done in a decaying Atlantic City, its leaders decided, so they came up with gambling. At first the voters of New Jersey weren’t very happy with the idea, turning it down in a 1974 referendum that would have made casino gambling legal statewide. The effort lost by more than 400,000 votes. Some voters, though, changed their attitudes in a close second referendum when the game rules were changed to confine casino gambling to Atlantic City. When the pros won on Nov. 2, 1976 Atlantic City became the first city in the eastern United States to legalize gambling, which had been rampant illegally in that same city. The pros and cons were rampant, too, in the referendum campaigns. Those in favor spoke of the benefits of increased employment that would result from the rebirth of the city and the economic benefits that would replace closed stores and struggling hotels. Opposition came from some religious groups who contended that gambling is immoral and creates other vices, as well takeing food away from the mouths of children when their parents go astray in the gambling rooms. Some of the public feared Atlantic City would follow the same pattern as Las Vegas, with prostitutes and organized crime interlopers. Endorsed by the referendum vote, casino gambling was legalized in Atlantic City on May 26, 1976, at the renovated Haddon Hall Hotel, a place that was a hospital for wounded soldiers during World War II. It was renamed Resorts in 1978, and now the ‘injured’ were those who lost their dollars there. The ‘healthy’ were the rare ones that went away winners. Many other casinos joined the crowd, and more were in the making as Atlantic City had the East Coast field all to itself. Recently, competition has emerged in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. An attempt in the ’90s by representatives of the Delaware Tribe to open a casino in Wildwood was rejected by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Some of the arguments of the supporters and opponents of casino gambling have come to fruition. An early mayor, Michael Matthews, was sent to prison during the new phase of the gambling era, and other officials have been on the brink of deep trouble. Occasionally stories appear in the newspaper about police busting a prostitution ring. Supporters point out that in place of formerly boarded-up stores and a sparsely populated Boardwalk, there is business unmatched in Atlantic City’s history. And just recently the state has intervened to supervise the operation for which so many people had high hopes. So was it right, as some people say, for Atlantic City to sell its soul to save its body? What was the alternative? Shore resorts up and down the coast were suffering economic pain starting in 1969. Should they have gone the Atlantic City route instead of enduring decades of decline? I tell my friends that the answer to their question depends on who you are. If it was wrong to do then, what was the alternative? If it was right to do, what has gone wrong and what should have been done to correct it? I am not a Solomon, I tell them. Maybe even he couldn’t give the right answer.