As I write this column, there is currently a commercial airing in the New York City area touting the New Jersey shore experience. Called “Stronger than the Storm,” the goal of the 30-second advertisement is to show that the Jersey coastline is mostly recovered from the destruction wrought by Superstorm Sandy and is a viable summer vacation destination. It does so by showcasing vignettes of what is considered a typical shore experience—families enjoying lighthouses, beaches, boardwalks, restaurants, cupcakes (don’t know why they focused on a cupcake shop, guess it’s considered a better shore treat than taffy or frozen custard these days). The spot ends with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie conversing with a family (I assume his own) about how the Jersey Shore is back and that it is, “stronger than the storm.”
Well, I guess and hope it is. But there is one aspect of the Jersey Shore experience that is definitely still ailing, both pre- and post-storm: Atlantic City casinos. Maybe the commercial should have shown a few scenes of happy people entering Caesars, the Borgata or Revel for an evening of casino entertainment after a day at the beach or strolling the boardwalk; perhaps it could have helped the incredibly dismal second-quarter gross operating profit numbers recently released by the New Jersey Division of Gaming enforcement. The good news from the report, such as it is: eight of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos turned a profit during the quarter, led by the Tropicana Casino, whose operating profits rose 28 percent to $12.6 million, and Caesars Atlantic City, which reported a profit of $24.3 million, an increase of 17 percent over the previous quarter, according to The Press of Atlantic City. The bad news, of which there was plenty: the combined gross operating profit for all Atlantic City casinos was $65 million, a jaw-dropping 45 percent decline over the $117.9 million the properties generated the second quarter of 2012.
The total revenue figure over the first six months of 2013 is also down 10 percent to $1.9 billion. Without a drastic change in fortunes, it looks like Atlantic City gaming revenues will decline for the seventh year in a row.
As bad as the economics are, the perception of Atlantic City is even worse. Despite recent ad campaigns such as “Do AC” and other public relations efforts, the community and its casino industry still suffer from a negative regional and national image. Indeed, many of the articles about Atlantic City’s casino ongoing decline tend to mention people being scared away by the community’s crime and run-down appearance; perceptions the casinos and the city have been combating since gaming was re-introduced there is the late 1970s. Atlantic City being a somewhat dangerous and seedy place is well-steeped into popular culture, especially when compared to Las Vegas. Think about it a second… when it comes to popular mass media such as music, movies and television, for the most part Las Vegas is depicted as someplace fun and exciting (the Elvis song “Viva Las Vegas,” the Hangover and countless other movies). Atlantic City, well, in the song “Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen describes it as a place where the “DA can’t get no relief.” The movie Atlantic City does the city no favors either, depicting 1980s-era Atlantic City as a mostly soul-less place destroying its glorious past for casino redemption.
And now, you get a commercial about Jersey Shore tourism starring the state’s governor in which casinos are not shown or mentioned. I’m not saying that inclusion in this ad would magically turn around the fortunes of Atlantic City casinos, I don’t think there’s any single solution to that problem; but the effort to reform the community’s image has to begin somewhere, and wouldn’t a paean to the area’s resilience in the face of natural and economic disaster have been a good place to start?