Casinos Are Not the Future: Rebuilding Atlantic City Will Take More Than Gambling
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Recently, Van Meter got a call from some marketing people asking him for his thoughts on how Atlantic City could be reborn. “I told them they had missed the opportunity to take what existed in the city and incorporate it into the vibe of the whole place,” he says. “They should be proud of these pockets of otherness and not be ashamed of the city. I think I used the phrase ‘glamorous decrepitude’ at one point.” He laughs. “You could feel the blank stares coming through the phone.”
But glamorous decrepitude, of a sort, is what Asbury Park has infused into its revival. Its boardwalk, once partially abandoned, is now stocked with spiffy modern tourist boutiques, but it also has plenty of throwbacks: The cacophonous Silverball Pinball arcade, the gorgeous Casino and Carousel Building, the refurbished ’60s-era Empress Hotel and the “Mad Men”-fabulous Howard Johnson’s building, now home to the Salt Water Beach Cafe.
It’s the downtown area, however, that’s been the most unlikely success. Along Cookman Avenue, eerily quiet just a few years ago, there are Zagat-rated restaurants, clothing shops and antique stores. This month, it got its first farmer’s market. A few blocks north, there’s Asbury Lanes, a bowling alley that hosts burlesque shows and punk bands. And there’s The ShowRoom, an art-house cinema that Nancy Sabino and Mike Sodano opened in 2009.
“I would say that just five or six years ago, putting in a movie theater wouldn’t have been a positive move,” says Sodano. Now, they’re breaking ground on a second theater to open later this summer.
The speed with which Asbury Park has changed has a lot to do with the investment of one developer, in particular: Madison Marquette. Single-developer projects are often disasters. But here, it’s worked because it’s created a space where not just one developer stands to profit, but where other entrepreneurs like Sodano can feel confident buying into. “It takes a lot of vision to see what Asbury has,” he says.
Atlantic City, finally, is starting to think about its off-beach areas, too. In February, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved the city’s tourism district master plan. It’s a 190-page schema with big ambitions, creating a real Main Street out of Atlantic Avenue and revitalizing parts of the city that, given their dramatic oceanfront locations, one can hardly believe lie fallow.
Whether it will work is a big if — Atlantic City is bigger than Asbury Park, with true urban problems. And as Mortimer Spreng said, the city leadership needs to snap out of its listlessness. “I was just in Asbury Park, and it’s absolutely gorgeous,” says Spreng. “All the homes are being refurbished. I don’t know if Atlantic City, even with its tourism district, can get there. I blame a lot of it on the administration.”
But at least, for the first time in decades, the boardwalk area and the city proper are talking to each other. It’s demolished a lot of its heritage and lacks even basic amenities (the Tropicana’s IMAX screen is the city’s only movie theater), but Atlantic City still has some amazing spots that should be tourist magnets. There’s Tony’s Baltimore Grill, a frozen-in-time former mob hangout that churns out delicious thin-crust pizza and $2 drafts; Dock’s Oyster House, a century-old seafood restaurant that serves some of the best lobster you’ve ever tasted; and Princeton Antiques, an eccentric old bookshop and curio store that would be a go-to destination in any city.
Revel’s success would be good for the city, but it won’t be a savior. If it forces the other resorts to up their game — and there’s evidence that’s already happening — then all the better. But for a city that’s located within one tank of gas for a quarter of the U.S. population, Atlantic City has way more potential than a dozen hotels along the beach can hold all by themselves.