ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – The billboard by the Atlantic City Expressway is supposed to speak for a single casino, not an entire company town. But Revel Casino Resorts marketing slogan resonates loudly throughout this struggling seaside resort.
Gamblers Wanted, it says. And how.
Atlantic City, the erstwhile East Coast gambling mecca, is on an epic losing streak; over the past six years, competitive and economic forces have crushed the local casino economy, driving revenue down more than 40 percent.
Once, the city that inspired the board game Monopoly had its own gambling monopoly on this side of the country. Now, its more Marvin Gardens than Boardwalk, with states from Maryland to Maine lining up to join the high-stakes game for tax revenue and middle-class jobs.
In 2006, when gambling in Atlantic City reached record levels, there were 27 commercial and tribal casinos, slots parlors and racetrack casinos in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, according to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouths Center for Policy Analysis. Now, there are 55 – with more casinos coming in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.
Pennsylvania, which first allowed casino gambling in 2006, surpassed New Jersey last year as the second-largest U.S. gambling market (after Nevada), with players choosing convenience (a single casino close to home) over critical mass (there are a dozen casinos in Atlantic City, that states only gambling locale).
In Maryland, which has embarked on its own massive gambling expansion, casino revenue tripled in the latest fiscal year.
Thirteen months after opening, Maryland Live Casino – which has hired dozens of dealers and gaming supervisors away from Atlantic City – rivals the ocean resorts biggest player, Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa. In July, Marylands largest casino collected $52.4 million from its slot machines and table games, compared with $64.2 million at Borgata.
This month, the Arundel Mills casino in Maryland will open a 52-table poker room that analysts say is likely to pull even more business out of Atlantic City.
As if to punctuate the shifting fortunes, poker at Maryland Live will launch Aug. 28 just as the opulent if oft-empty poker room closes at Atlantic Citys Revel, a $2.4 billion beachfront property that filed for bankruptcy less than a year after it opened.
There are still profits being made around Atlantic City, where the first casino opened on the historic boardwalk 3 1/2 decades ago. But the barrier-island town has been losing its lifeblood business at a breathtaking clip. In 2006, gross gambling revenue here was a record $5.2 billion. The total has gone down every year since; in 2012, the number was barely over $3 billion – the lowest mark since 1991.
The situation there has become catastrophic, said Steve Norton, a gambling analyst with a long history in Atlantic City, where he opened the first casino, Resorts International, in 1978.
And the outlook isnt any better this year, even as surveys suggest Atlantic Citys image is improving: In the first half of 2013, gambling revenue was off by nearly 11 percent.
Officials tout increased luxury-tax and occupancy-tax revenue, which indicate increased spending on non-gambling activities. But Atlantic City is a gambling-dependent city with a gambling-based economy that is shrinking rapidly.
Its dismal, said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. They have serious issues.