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Maybe Trump's Departure from Atlantic City Isn't Such a Bad Thing

July 14, 2014 at 12:04 PM | by | ()

Atlantic City boardwalk as seen from the water.

For a long time, Atlantic City was considered the Las Vegas of the east, attracting gamblers and partiers from the nearby cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C. for getaway weekends with its combination of casinos and beaches.

On paper, one would think this proximity and outdoor setting would give it a natural advantage over Vegas, a destination that's closest major market is five hours away (Los Angeles) and that relies on artificial environments (pools) to entertain its guests. For a long time, especially during the 1980s, Atlantic City held its own against Sin City. The last few decades haven't been as kind, however, although there was at least hope that it could once again return to these days of glory.

But with the recent news involving Donald Trumps' decision to close the Trump Plaza, coupled with the closing of the Showboat, the expected closing of the Atlantic Club, and the on-going disaster that is Revel, you can officially close the book on Atlantic City as we know it. According to the AP, the city will most likely lose a third of its casinos and a quarter of its casino workforce in less than nine months. Yikes.

As someone who grew up 45 minutes away and spent his childhood summers just down the road in Ocean City, this travel writer has a different take on this news. To get to the point, I think it's great news. I'm not trying to be insensitive to all those who will lose their jobs and who might take a hit in the short term, but I will say it again: Long term, this is good news in my book.

The reason is because it will provide a blank slate for the city to start over, to rethink its entire approach to tourism. For years, it has been casino casino casino in an attempt to compete with Vegas and "revive" the city. For those who aren't aware of its history, Atlantic City was a beach destination for almost seventy years before the first casino was ever built. Gambling was supposed to lift the city out of its post-World War II poverty when it was legalized in the 70s, but after a short period of success, all it did was make those problems worse while rich hotel owners got richer.

Fast forward to present day, where casinos are now legal in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania, and people don't have to drive to Atlantic City to gamble anymore. And because the city did such an awful job of making itself be about anything other than gambling - trying to be the Vegas of the east instead of just being itself - many didn't see any reason to go anymore, and the competition sent the town into the tailspin that is at its peak today.

Its failure becomes even harder to swallow when you look at the success of its neighboring towns. For example, Ocean City and Cape May have been honored with awards for Best Family Beach Town (Travel Channel) and Coolest Small Town in America (Budget Travel), respectively. Anyone who has been to Atlantic City can tell you that it has a beach. But is it a beach town? Eh. Not really. Not as far as the vibe is concerned.

A quick look around the world at different tourism destinations will show you that when a place makes decisions based on short-term financial gain, it sees short-term success inevitably followed by rapid failure in every sense of the word, sometimes financially, sometimes culturally. In Atlantic City's case, it has unfortunately been both.

So as the casinos begin to shut their doors, maybe Atlantic City can finally shake its image as a casino town and get back to its roots. Believe it or not, the groundwork is already in place. In 2011, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed legislation that led to the creation of the Atlantic City Alliance, an organization whose sole job is to broaden the city’s appeal and fix its broken reputation. In April of 2012, the ACA launched a $20 million tourism marketing campaign – the largest in the city’s history – to promote the non-gambling side of town.

I personally don't see a reason to kick out every casino. Some, like the Borgata, are still very popular and very well done. But the mentality as a whole needs to change. The ACA can "promote" the non-gambling side all it wants, but if the vibe in town doesn't change, neither will consumer behavior.

Think about it. When at the beach, do you want to look down on it through the window of a 20th-floor hotel room, or would you rather rock in a wicker chair on the porch of an inn, feeling the breeze and smelling the salty air? What if instead of replacing those lost hotel rooms with more high-rises, it focused on locally-owned inns and B&Bs? What if instead of building big shopping malls, it looked to spark more mom-and-pop shops, like the ones you find in Cape May? Beach bars? Waterfront restaurants? Local seafood markets?

All these things are part of Atlantic City, but they lay dormant and hidden in the shadows cast by the casino towers. As this boardwalk empire begins to officially fall, maybe the real Atlantic City can once again find its footing and stand up.

[Photos: Will McGough]

Archived Comments:

I agree.

Was actually just having a discussion with my family (in NJ) about the demise of Atlantic City and I had a thought about the boardwalk just becoming hotels and leisure spots without all that casino craziness. It seems like a great way to do it. I don't know how they can re-use the existing casino structures on the boardwalk but I'll stay optimistic in the hopes that it can change for the better.