Naureen Khan

Casino lights dim in Atlantic City, as leaders plot to revive city

An estimated 7,000 workers in a city of 39,000 will lose their jobs by year’s end

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — It was a telling sign of Atlantic City’s current financial straits that, on a mild summer night in September, rows upon rows of gleaming slot machines at Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino sat empty.

The machines all bore an identical scrolling message for would-be tempters of fortune: Bet with your head, not over it.

Atlantic City could be accused of not heeding that advice, placing all of its proverbial chips on the gaming industry.

For decades, the city’s monopoly on gambling was a remarkable windfall, generating profits for the casinos, the city and the state alike while providing thousands of high-paying jobs for hospitality workers. But as other East Coast states like Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New York — and even other parts of New Jersey — embraced gambling and opened new casinos, Atlantic City fell on hard times and appeared woefully unprepared for changes in the market.

At Trump Plaza, which later this week will become the fourth Atlantic City casino to close in 2014, Bryant Nelson was one of the lone employees on the eerily quiet casino floor. A cleaner and manager at the Plaza for 25 years, Nelson remembered better days.

“It’s not like it used to be. People are not coming in here anymore,” Nelson said. “It used to be people walking over each other.”

Nelson, who works another job, said he is still figuring out what’s next, but wasn’t exactly surprised by the turn of events.  

“I’m heartbroken because I worked here for 25 years and I was planning on retiring from here,” he said. “The casinos promised the city a lot and, in my opinion, didn’t come through in terms of helping the citizens of Atlantic City.”

Joe Luccathetti (left) and Robert Fitting, employees of the Revel Casino Hotel, remove signage from its wall along the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The $2.4 billion Revel closed this summer.
Tom Mihalek / Reuters

Gambling revenue in the city nosedived in recent years, declining to $2.9 billion last year, down from a peak of $5.2 billion in 2006. Seeing the writing on the wall, casino owners brought down the curtain.

The Atlantic Club was the first to go, closing in January. Then Showboat, a fixture on the boardwalk for 27 years, shuttered at the end of August, followed closely by Revel, which opened only two years ago to demonstrate the strength of gaming in Atlantic City. Trump Plaza will be the next to go, and now Trump Taj Mahal announced it is considering calling it quits by November.

To add insult to injury, Trump Taj Mahal management asked employees to go without benefits and pensions to keep the property open longer, union officials said, a proposition the workers declined.

In all, an estimated 7,000 workers in a city of 39,000, will lose their jobs by year’s end.

“We have never seen anything like this in southern New Jersey,” said Deborah Figart, a labor economist at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey whose research has focused on casino workers. “This is a huge, huge, massive economic restructuring that is very akin to what happens in a recession.”

These days, the epicenter of action in Atlantic City isn’t by the glittering lights of the Pacific Avenue strip where the casinos are, but at the Atlantic City Convention Center, where state officials have partnered with employers to host a series of job fairs and informational sessions. Local 54 of Unite Here, the union representing about a third of casino workers in Atlantic City, has set up a kind of war room for laid-off employees. There, volunteers help those struggling with the recent wave of job losses file for unemployment insurance in nine languages and direct them to other resources like food banks, energy assistance and Social Security options.

Atlantic City had its season—we had [gambling] all to ourselves for more than 20 years. We didn’t take advantage of that.

Morris Green

Trump Plaza server

Officials from the N.J. Department of Labor and the main casino workers' union, Local 54 of Unite-HERE, help displaced workers file for unemployment.
Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

Eve Davis, 53, volunteers here to help friends and former colleagues through the same painful process she is going through herself of figuring out a Plan B. She worked at Showboat for 28 years as a cocktail waitress.

“My last four days of work was like a funeral every day. I have no other way to describe it,” she said. “You get it together enough to say goodbye to your co-workers, say ‘Ok we’re ok,’ and then you bring somebody their drink and they’re crying.”

Davis, born and raised in Atlantic City, said this is not what her parents bargained for when they voted for the gambling referendum in the late 1970s. Casinos were only interested in their own profits instead of how to make the city an all-around attractive tourist destination and foster local businesses, she said.

“We were told they would be good jobs and it was good for the economy and it was, but they never revitalized the city,” Davis said. “They made a box and put everything inside the box that you would possibly need, and said, ‘Stay in the box. Everything you need is in there. Don’t go out in the slums.’”

Indeed, most everyone in Atlantic City has an opinion on how it all went so wrong, laying the blame on mismanagement both by state and local leaders as well as casino management.

“For 35 years the people who make decisions about Atlantic City have made wrong decisions at every turn,” said Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54. "It was poor, poor planning and now everyone is affected by it." 

State legislators dragged their feet in approving sports betting, finally green-lighting the enterprise earlier this week, McDevitt said. City officials did not use the additional tax revenue from the casinos to improve roads, crack down on crime, or beautify neighborhoods. Casino managers decided to build additional towers and expand when they should have anticipated the increased competition and could have worked to add amenities to attract non-gambling customers.

Gov. Chris Christie speaks to the media following a summit meeting of political, business and labor leaders over the future of Atlantic City at the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images

These are particularly disheartening times for Atlantic City workers not just because of the scale of the layoffs but because, unlike hospitality and service jobs in other parts of the country, union involvement in Atlantic City had kept wages high and benefits good.

What's happening in Atlantic City in a way mirrors what has been happening in the rest of the country, Figart said—a hollowing out of the middle class as old industries collapse. In Atlantic City, the decline is taking place in fast forward. 

“It did me very well. My family wanted for nothing and neither did I. We got benefits, and we made a great salary for a long time,” said Morris Green, who faces unemployment after 29 years as a server in the Trump Plaza restaurant. “Atlantic City had its season—we had [gambling] all to ourselves for more than 20 years. We didn’t take advantage of that.”

“Did we really think that we were going to be the only city with casinos forever?” he added.

Still, there are those who remain hopeful that the city can stage a comeback.

Gov. Chris Christie led a closed-door meeting with Atlantic City stakeholders on Monday on how to diversify the local economy and reinvent the city as a resort town, a draw for gamers and families alike. Although that has been the talk of Atlantic City for years, McDevitt believes all decision makers are finally committed to the task.

Zayra Santos, 50, was first recruited from Puerto Rico to come to Atlantic City in 1990 to open up Trump Taj Mahal. She recently lost her job as a housekeeper at Revel, but said she’s not ready to give up on her adopted city yet. After being laid off Sept. 1, she was at the convention center the very next day to help colleagues in even more dire financial circumstances get help.

“I plan to survive,” she said. “I don’t think it’s over for Atlantic City—I think we should keep fighting. We are going through a difficult time right now but we’re going to come back better.”

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