Four of its 12 casinos have closed in the last year, including the Revel, the newest and glitziest, despite a $260 million, taxpayer-funded gift courtesy of Gov. Chris Christie. A fifth, the Trump Taj Mahal, is on the brink. The gaming industryâ€”proponents never call it gamblingâ€”has lost nearly 8,000 jobs since the beginning of the year and its revenue, which hit a high of $5.2 billion in 2006, is down nearly 50 percent. Add to that the cityâ€™s $65 million budget shortfall, pending layoffs of as many as 300 city workers and a tax base in free fall.
Sure, the still-sluggish U.S. economy is a factor. The loss of the East Coast gambling monopoly that Atlantic City enjoyed for nearly 20 years is another. Poor planning, lack of foresight and the failure to expand the cityâ€™s attractions beyond casinos are part of the mix. Even acts of God played a role: Though the city wasnâ€™t devastated in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy the way other Jersey Shore towns were, tourism plunged in the immediate aftermath at a time when the city could least afford it.
But there is something else at play, something in the cityâ€™s DNA that is painfully obvious to anyone whoâ€™s lived or worked there.
Even during its halcyon days, Atlantic City was an enterprise built around blue smoke and mirrors. Think, Nucky Johnson, the inspiration for HBOâ€™s Boardwalk Empire, and the wide-open rackets of gambling, booze and prostitution during Prohibition.
It was all about grabbing whatever you could, whenever you could from whomever you could. The city worked on a 12-week economy, Memorial Day to Labor Day. Get the tourists and vacationers into town. Sell them the beach and the Boardwalk and then send them home broke. The Miss America Pageant, held in Atlantic City for most of its years, was part of that con. It was the 1920s brainchild of a city huckster looking for a way to extend the summer season for another week. The city was born as a come-on, a fugazy.
Wonder why Atlantic City is failing? The better question, the one asked by people who know the town: Why did anyone think it would ever succeed?