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Casino resort Atlantic City falls on hard times

17 september 2014, 14:04
0
©AFP
©AFP

 For decades, Atlantic City was a popular vacation destination, with glittering casinos, sandy beaches and the boardwalk running along the Atlantic Ocean. Tourists poured in and locals reaped the rewards, AFP reports.

But New Jersey's crown jewel -- the inspiration for the Monopoly board game and the setting for HBO's award-winning series "Boardwalk Empire" -- has fallen on hard times.

Four of its once-bustling gambling dens have closed.

Trump Plaza -- built in 1984 -- formally closed its doors at 6:00 am Tuesday, following the shutterings of Atlantic Club on January 13, Showboat on August 31 and Revel on September 4.

A fifth, the Trump Taj Mahal, may also close in November.

Now the few visitors who turn up are handed free pink magnets in the local museum with the catchphrase "AC don't stop believing" -- in a city where a quarter live below the poverty line.

Of the 32,000 people working for casinos in the city, 8,000 have lost their jobs, buffeted by newer gambling halls that have opened in neighboring Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.

"It is certainly the most dramatic contraction in my experience of this area," said Izzy Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton College in New Jersey.

"The effects are far reaching," Posner said.

"It's not just the lost jobs, there are knock-on effects on supplies and services, which depend on the spending of casinos."

  Hard times 

For nearly 30 years, Atlantic City, a two-hour car journey south of New York, had a monopoly on gambling on the US East Coast.

In 2006, at the peak of the city's glory, Posner says the casinos brought in $5.2 billion.

But then competition arrived from neighboring states in areas often closer to big cities.

"There are six times as many casinos in the northeast," said Robert McDevitt, president of the union "Unite Here, Local 54".

In the first eight months of the year, casino revenue fell 6.3 percent compared to the same period in 2013 -- $1.84 billion compared to $1.97 billion, says the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.

On the boardwalk, rickshaw drivers wait for customers in vain.

"Tomorrow, I am done. No more," says Islord Milice, a Haitian aged 20 with his arms crossed. "I will look for something else."

In clothing shop "One Stop," which has been on the boardwalk for 20 years, Pakistani Abid Gayyum says business is down 35 to 40 percent this year.

"Many shops are closing. Many people are moving," he said.

At the moment, he is trying to negotiate a drop in his rent. "I don't know what I am going to do," he said.

  'Any kind of job' 

In the hours before Trump Plaza closed, the atmosphere in the cavernous casino with retro 1980s flowered carpets was surreal.

A goodbye note was pinned to the door of 24 Central Cafe, thanking clients. Practically all the restaurants were closed. The few remaining clients seemed sad.

Sitting at the roulette table for the last time, croupier Mychele Nydegger, 62, couldn't hide her concern.

"Tomorrow, I am going to sleep all day," she said.

Then what? "I don't know."

"I have spent 24 years of my life here. Many people, 30 years. This is half our life... And now they kick us out on the street. A lot of people are upset," she said.

Nydegger feels too old to move across state lines to find work. If there's no more casino work, she says she will look for "any kind of job."

McDevitt, whose union on Wednesday will open a resource center for three days for those laid off, expects a third of them to retire, a third to move to another area and a third to find their way back into the hospitality industry.

Atlantic City is now struggling to reinvent itself. Even "Boardwalk Empire" -- inspired by the city's Prohibition and mobster history -- ends its last season next month.

The city's early 20th century boom-time when grand hotels were built overlooking the ocean, and entertainment and innovation thrived, are proudly displayed in a small historical museum.

"Sometimes change can be positive," says museum coordinator Beth Ryan.

"If you look at the past, Atlantic City has always been able to try something new," she said, gently handing a pink magnet to an elderly woman.

by Brigitte DUSSEAU


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