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Revel Casino closes: why lights on Atlantic City boardwalk are dimming

Harry BruiniusThe Christian Science Monitor

Atlantic City bet big when it planned a new $2.4 billion gleaming glass casino during its mid-2000s boom. On Tuesday, the city came up short when the new luxury venue, the Revel Casino Hotel, shuttered its doors after just two years.

It was the second casino to shut off its slot lights and sounds and call out “No more bets” this past holiday weekend. Revel ceased its gambling operations just two days after the popular New Orleans-themed Showboat Casino Hotel went silent on Sunday, after a 27-year run on the iconic oceanside boardwalk.

Indeed, the East Coast version of “Sin City,” whose shady past has been the subject of HBO’s popular “Boardwalk Empire” series the past five years, will lose four major casino hotels this year and a total of 8,000 jobs, officials say – or a quarter of the city’s casino workforce. The Atlantic Club shuttered in January, and Trump Plaza will close its doors Sept. 16. The city's reversal of fortunes has been driven by a confluence of factors, experts say, ranging from recession-hit individuals pulling back on entertainment spending to increased competition in the Northeast. As legalized gambling has proliferated in neighboring states, fewer people have been drawn to the lights of the boardwalk.

“All of the casinos in Atlantic City were built for a market that was like Las Vegas – a destination – and that worked great for 28 consecutive years,” says Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton College in Galloway, N.J. “But in this region now, casinos are more of convenience type of place, a place that is more accessible to a large percent of the population.”

The effects from Atlantic City's reversal of fortunes have been stark: Even before the loss of three major casinos in three weeks, Atlantic County in New Jersey already topped the nation in job losses. In July, it posted 3,600 fewer jobs compared with the same time last year, dead last among the 372 largest metropolitan areas in the country, according to US Labor Department figures released in August.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a shrinkage of that magnitude in any industrial sector in New Jersey in that period of time,” James W. Hughes, the dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, told The New York Times. “It really is unprecedented.”

On Wednesday, more than 5,000 workers laid off from the Revel and The Showboat are set to attend one of the largest mass filings for unemployment benefits the region has ever seen. The largest union for casino workers in Atlantic City, Local 54 of Unite-HERE, will set up more than 100 workstations at the city’s massive convention center to guide the newly jobless through available resources, including health insurance, food stamps, and utilities assistance.  

“Since we first heard news that these casinos were planning to close, we have worked relentlessly to keep these properties open," Local 54 president Bob McDevitt told the Associated Press. "We are currently in the process of making plans to continue to advocate for these workers. Right now, we are focused on making sure that the basic needs of all of the affected workers are met."

Gambling was legalized in Atlantic City in 1978. And for nearly three decades, revenue and employment soared as boardwalk coffers grew every single year. Slots and gaming tables garnered $134 million casino “wins” from gamblers that first year, and burgeoned to $5.2 billion at its peak in 2006 – when plans for the high roller Revel first took shape.

But then the house started to lose, and gambling revenues have fallen by nearly half since then, according to the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Gambling revenues fell to $2.9 billion in 2013, and experts expect it to bottom out at $2 billion.

In addition to outside pressures, the luxurious Revel Casino and Hotel may have misjudged its market. Built for high rollers, it banned smoking throughout the building at first – it’s allowed at other casinos – and it did not offer bus service to its doors. And its expensive rooms and restaurants never drew the clientele it originally sought.

But the Great Recession hit Atlantic City harder than most regions as families and individuals pinched their entertainment and travel budgets. And in recent years, there has been increased competition for those entertainment dollars, as legalized gambling has spread and a host of new regional casinos have been built in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. And now that New York has permits ready for up to four more new regional casinos upstate – where unemployment lingers near 13 percent in most places – Atlantic City’s gambling market share is likely to shrink further. New Jersey itself, too, could add to Atlantic City’s woes with proposals for new casinos in the Meadowlands complex and Jersey City, both across the Hudson from Manhattan.

“It’s probably a $6 and a half billion, maybe $7 billion casino market in the region,” says Dr. Posner. While the regional casinos may represent some growth in the market, he says, “for the most part it’s really a question of market share among the casinos.”