Can Revel Save Atlantic City?
The state of New Jersey collects hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling taxes each year, but its one and only gambling destination, Atlantic City, is now surrounded by competition. Pennsylvania opened the first of its casinos in 2006 and since then, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and New York have added casinos. Atlantic City’s gaming revenues have fallen every year since.
Enter Revel, the über-luxury hotel and casino with state backing and $241 million in tax credits, which will have its official premiere the last weekend in May. By virtue of being the shiniest, newest casino, Revel is likely to do well for itself, but with that public support comes an expectation that it will also help revitalize the rest of the city. This was the point of bringing casinos to Atlantic City in the first place, says Bryant Simon, Temple University history professor and author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America. Simon says new casinos have made this promise again and again, and he doesn’t think it will work in AC’s favor this time, either. Instead, he thinks Revel will cannibalize other casinos.
"Atlantic City has long been in the business of looking for a savior," says Simon.
Although a beach resort destination since the 19th century, casino gambling wasn’t legalized in Atlantic City until 1976, when it was offered as a way to help the struggling city. Casinos were initially required to reinvest part of their revenues in projects that would improve the health and well-being of Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey. Gambling was intended as a mechanism for revitalization, but a loophole allowed the casinos to largely ignore this requirement. In 1984, the state established the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), funded by gambling revenue to redevelop blighted areas of Atlantic City and around the state. It’s since expanded its mission to include economic development projects, including those meant to benefit the casinos more than the city’s residents, such as the Brigantine Connector road project, which opened more land to casinos and demolished a neighborhood in the process.
The casinos have obviously brought visitors and jobs to Atlantic City, but since gambling was legalized, non-casino employment has declined considerably. If you want to see how the casinos have or haven’t helped Atlantic City, you have to step off the boardwalk. A handful of restaurants do well, despite the fact that most gamblers eat in the casinos, but there’s no shortage of vacant lots or abandoned buildings. Buildings that were once the center of the community—schools, churches, synagogues, fraternal clubs—sit empty. It doesn’t even look as if the pawn shops are doing much business anymore. This isn’t a place that’s been saved from anything and it hardly looks like a family resort. Since 2008, all 12 of Atlantic City’s casinos, including Revel, have appealed their tax assessments, forcing the government to pay refunds in the tens of millions of dollars as each appeal is settled. The casinos once provided 80 percent of the property tax collected by the city, which is now considering raising taxes on residential property owners to make up for the shortfall.
When Atlantic City’s casinos had a virtual monopoly on East Coast gambling, their bottom line wasn’t affected by the deteriorated city. Each casino could be its own island. Visitors can drive into a massive parking deck, gamble in a casino and never step foot outside. Before Revel, the Borgata was the newest and shiniest property, and it currently does the most business among Atlantic City’s casinos. It’s located in the city’s Marina District, disconnected from the boardwalk and cut off from the rest of the city by a mess of highway overpasses. Nobody who goes to the Borgata goes there because of where it’s located. And that’s the catch for Atlantic City today. In order for casinos to benefit the city and not just the state’s tax coffers, it needs to become a destination. When most people in the Northeast can gamble practically in their back yard, Atlantic City needs to become a place worth traveling for. It needs resorts that open up to the city, encourage visitors to leave the casino floor, venture out into the sun, and see the sights. Of course, by now, Atlantic City doesn’t have many sights left to see.
An abandoned church on a non-tourist street in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Kelly Bennett)
Last year, after the state of New Jersey bailed out the then-stalled Revel project, it gave the CRDA the role of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority and many of the powers once reserved for the city government, including the ability to impose land use regulations, implement design guidelines, undertake redevelopment projects, approve road projects, and the right to exercise eminent domain within a designated Tourism District. This district includes all the areas with casinos, the boardwalk, the convention center, a redeveloped shopping area, and a former airport owned by the city. The city still collects taxes and has the honor of providing police services in the district, but its destiny is largely out of its own hands. Mayor Lorenzo Langford has likened New Jersey’s relationship with Atlantic City to one of a pimp and a prostitute.
The new Tourism District’s stated objective is to change perceptions of Atlantic City and "reposition it as a leading resort destination." And the CRDA has without a doubt been busy. The agency is improving the boardwalk, building a park around Atlantic City’s lighthouse, and making façade and pavilion improvements. They recently renamed Connecticut Avenue Beach, “Revel Beach,” to the dismay of the city council. In a move that aims to bring back the historic lore of the city, the CRDA also helped finance the reopening of the 100-year-old Steel Pier amusement park. Developers are now planning a year-round water park and a 31-story hotel, although they’ve backed off plans to resurrect the diving horse attraction.
Revel’s tactic is to cast Atlantic City as something other than what it’s known for. Its ad campaign emphasizes everything except their casino in magazines as varied as Bon Appétit, GQ, Vanity Fair, and Elle. Gamblers already know there are casinos in Atlantic City. Revel is trying to lure people who want to go to a nightclub (there are three, including a burlesque club), see a concert (Beyoncé just added a fourth show in May), bask in a spa (this one is 32,000-square-feet and has a co-ed bath house), swim or surf at the beach (now being replenished by the Corps of Engineers), or lounge by a pool (with cocktail girls and pool boys with misting bottles). They want people to visit their 14 restaurants and "curated collection of Iron Chefs, Michelin chefs and James Beard Award winners." Instead of gaming credits or slot dollars, they’re offering a $30 "tasting credit" toward foodie-friendly eats as part of their preview package. Gone are the bland buffets, replaced by trendy tapas, “food truck" style tacos and churros (with spicy Valrhona chocolate dipping sauce to help ease some of those losses at the blackjack table), Belgian beers, and a "1920s-era zinc cocktail bar."
"The whole intent of the property is to go after a different demographic," says Michael Prifti, of BLT Architects and the executive architect for Revel. "One does not go to Chester or Bensalem or Bethlehem (PA) as a vacation. Revel is a resort and it’s intended to fit a classic resort model," he says. “Baltimore has the Inner Harbor, Washington has its monuments, New York has, well, New York. Atlantic City has the ocean. Revel is of its place. It’s completely different than any other casino in Atlantic City." Revel’s developers originally proposed a master plan for the area surrounding the casino that included new housing, parks, and commercial development. The area off the beach was probably always a long shot to be completed, but the new role of the CRDA and the fact that most of this area lies outside the Tourism District makes it pretty unlikely.
When it comes down to it, New Jersey needs its casinos to succeed and it will let the casinos do what they may in the pursuit of gamblers. The state is investing in Revel, the CRDA is investing in the casinos, and Atlantic City is just going to have to stop dreaming of saviors. Revel CEO Kevin DeSanctis wasn’t just appointed to the CRDA because of his desire to improve the health and well-being of Atlantic City. He wants his casino to succeed just as much as the state of New Jersey does. Simon suggests looking at Atlantic City’s other casinos and the total casino take next year to evaluate whether the state’s investment in Revel helps Atlantic City, or if it just helps Revel. "Does it lift the Showboat? Does it lift the Tropicana?" Simon asks. "What gambling has always done was help gambling."
Images of Revel courtesy Revel Resorts.