By Frank LoBiondo
2014 has brought new challenges for Atlantic City, to say the least. Increased competition from Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York has effectively ended the resort's one-time monopoly on gaming. Recovery from the economic recession has been stagnant and uneven, particularly in South Jersey. And now, perennial threats from North Jersey lawmakers to expand gaming options within the state have astonishingly picked up new supporters from once-loyal defenders of Atlantic City. Some are openly suggesting the state should quit supporting the city. Quite frankly, I, for one, will never wave the white flag.
Bluntly, this has been a year of transformation. The closing of the Atlantic Club was difficult, but not unexpected. The successive announcements by Revel Casino-Hotel, Showboat Casino Hotel and Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino were full-throttle kicks to our collective gut. Thousands of our family members, friends and neighbors are now simultaneously searching for employment options while coping with the emotional toll of the announced closures. Despite it all, the unified response among the Atlantic County community at large continues to be nothing short of outstanding. We may feel down now, but we are certainly not out.
I have personally reached out to Gov. Chris Christie, reiterating my unwavering support for Atlantic City and decrying any effort to allow for casinos elsewhere in our state. I pressed upon him and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to double down on their support to the residents and workers of Atlantic City by living up to their commitment to our region. I implore the same patience and commitment from our own state lawmakers who are too quick to trade away the livelihood of thousands of residents working and living in Atlantic City.
Since the creation of the Atlantic City Tourism District, visible changes are clearly evident and positive strides have been made. Steel Pier has just completed a multimillion-dollar upgrade to its popular amusement park; new restaurants such as Margaritaville and Landshark have opened to great fanfare; and family-focused events such as the Sand Sculpting World Cup are growing in frequency and attendance. From the ongoing construction of the Bass Pro Shops and expansion of the Tanger Outlets to the successful Blake Shelton beach concert and LGBT Sand Blast weekend, Atlantic City is diversifying its attractions to appeal to an entirely new visitor while unveiling new options for loyal patrons.
The numbers clearly show an Atlantic City far from turned off. The Atlantic City Alliance's DO AC website traffic has increased each month, with more than 1.6 million unique visitors so far in 2014. Likewise, nearly 80 events were held at the Convention Center and other facilities from January through June, booking more than 64,000 room nights and generating more than $80 million in spending. With headliner performers like Lady Gaga, Queen and Aerosmith selling out shows at Boardwalk Hall and upcoming citywide draws such as the Atlantic City Air Show, entertainers and event planners aren't shunning Atlantic City in light of recent challenges. Bottom line: non-gaming revenues have increased by more than $160 million since Christie's plans for Atlantic City were initiated, pushing spending by visitors within reach of the coveted $1 billion annual target.
While nongaming indicators are pointing in a positive direction, work remains to be done and time is needed. I agree with and support bipartisan efforts of local legislators who argue the first option of the corporate owners of our famed casinos should be to aggressively search for a buyer and new operator of their properties as casinos rather than simply shuttering the doors. Recent updates from Mayor Don Guardian's office of "strong interest" in the Showboat property give further credence for due diligence. A delay in the closures as requested to the state's Casino Control Commission would give more time for additional potential buyers to come forward. This could yield positive opportunities that were not possible before.
Standing on the Boardwalk with affected casino workers and their supporters, I made clear that we should not abandon our investment in Atlantic City. We should be given every opportunity to succeed. Diverting gaming from the city is counterintuitive to our shared goal of revitalizing the seaside resort, attracting additional investments, diversifying our visitor base and creating new jobs. Atlantic City has reinvented itself before - naysayers now looking to write its obituary are premature and shortsighted.