Looking Back On The Good And Bad Of 40 Years Of Atlantic City Casino Gambling

Barbara Nathan Updated on July 28, 2018
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When all is said and done, 2018 will go down in history as a major year for Atlantic City.

Sports betting became legal, and for the first time in six years, instead of any casinos closing, on June 28, two new casinos opened. But that’s not all that this much-maligned but incredibly resilient vacation destination, seaside resort, and East Coast gambling mecca has to celebrate this year. 2018 is also the 40th anniversary of Atlantic City casino gambling.

This article will take a brief trip down memory lane and discuss what went both right and wrong for Atlantic City over the last 40 years, as well as where is headed from here. Let’s start with the relevant background on how Atlantic City casino gambling came about in the first place.

How New Jersey became the second state in the country to legalize casinos

Prior to 1978, casino gambling was legal in only one state: Nevada

Forty years ago, on May 26, 1978, New Jersey made history becoming the first state in the U.S. to follow in the footsteps of Nevada and offer legalized casino gambling, but only in Atlantic City. According to OnlineUnitedStatesCasinos.com, 28 states now have land-based casinos and only two states — Hawaii and Utah — do not allow gambling in any form.

However, the proliferation of casinos nationwide was by no means overnight. The process was many years in the making.

1976 referendum in New Jersey

The idea that building casinos in Atlantic City would be good for Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey had been under consideration for some time.

But before any casinos could legally operate in that state, there had to be laws permitting them, and before that could happen, the people of the state had to indicate that it was something they wanted. The referendum on the ballot in 1976 proposing casinos in Atlantic City was approved by 57 percent of NJ voters.

May 26, 1978: Atlantic City’s first casino opened

The final version of the bill was signed into law by then-Gov. Brendan T. Byrne on June 17, 1977. Nearly a year later, on May 26, 1978, the first Atlantic City casino opened for business.

How the various Atlantic City casinos have fared over the years

Resorts was the first Atlantic City casino

Resorts International was the first casino in Atlantic City that started it all.

On opening day, the lines to get in the place extended for blocks. After all, it was the only game in town. And it remained the only game in town until Caesars Boardwalk Regency (now simply Caesars) opened on June 26, 1979, as Atlantic City’s second casino.

Difficult times ahead

In the years that followed, other casinos opened, but not all of them were able to survive.

In fact, Hurricane Katrina and the recession adversely affected every property, and businesses in the entire town took a huge hit. However, some properties were able to cope with the economic uncertainty and the added problem of competition from casinos in neighboring states better than others.

40 turbulent years later, Atlantic City’s oldest casino is still going strong

As for Atlantic City’s first casino, now simply called Resorts, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Over the years, the aging property experienced a long and turbulent history and multiple ownership changes.

However, Resorts is still here. In fact, over the entire Memorial Day weekend, the property had a huge 40th-anniversary celebration. You can read all about that momentous occasion here. The excitement is far from over though, as Resorts continues to offer 40th anniversary-related special events and promotions all summer long.

Most importantly, the fact that Resorts has been able to get through the difficult periods and keep reinventing itself has served as a positive model for many other casinos, not only in Atlantic City but nationwide.

Other Atlantic City ups and downs

Memorable failures

On the other hand, one poorly designed property, originally the Playboy Hotel and Casino, then the Atlantis, then Trump Regency, and finally Trump World’s Fair, seemed doomed from the start.

Another casino hotel, at the far south end of the Boardwalk, which was very successful early on as the Golden Nugget under the ownership of Steve Wynn, also went through multiple ownership changes, none of which worked. In its final incarnation as the Atlantic Club, the bankrupt casino closed its doors permanently in 2014 (one of a record four Atlantic City casinos to close that year).

The building has remained vacant ever since.

Then, out of the ashes, new life

However, not every closed casino in Atlantic City remained closed. The property first known as Trump’s Castle and later as Trump Marina reopened in 2011 under new ownership as a new Golden Nugget that has grown into one the town’s most successful properties.

Of course, the most recent instances of closed properties coming back to life again are the former Revel and the former Trump Taj Mahal.

The poorly conceived, extravagantly expensive, and doomed from the start Revel only lasted two years before it closed in 2014. But the property has undergone extensive renovations and been given new life as Ocean Resort Casino.

As for the Trump Taj Mahal, it wasn’t just renovated. In order to turn it into its replacement, Hard Rock Atlantic City, it was completely transformed inside and out. Both new casinos opened the same day on June 28.

What Atlantic City did right in the last 40 years

Looking back over the past 40 years, it is possible to see that where Atlantic City is now is a culmination of not only certain things that could have been done better but also of many things AC did right.

Atlantic City wasn’t always dealt a good hand, and no one who knows this city well is pretending that all its problems are behind it. But just as foresight, hard work, and perseverance have been the key to many of the positive changes that have already occurred, I believe that the same admirable traits will continue to serve Atlantic City well in the future.

A proud tradition of stepping up to the plate

Fortunately, Atlantic City is part of a state that has had a long and proud tradition of being willing to take the initiative and fight hard to bring about positive changes. Rather than sitting back and waiting to see if other parties would step up to the plate, New Jersey has not only repeatedly taken a leadership role but has been steadfast, no matter what roadblocks presented themselves on the way.

The most recent evidence of this leadership was the US Supreme Court decision that overturned PASPA on May 14, 2018. The decision finally made it possible to have legal NJ sports betting.

However, there might not have been any casinos in Atlantic City today to take the sports bets without the foresight and hard work that made casino gambling in this state a reality 40 years ago.

Creating a casino gambling environment of safety and integrity from the get-go

In the months leading up to the 1976 election when the referendum regarding casino gambling in Atlantic City was presented to New Jersey voters, supporters didn’t leave the outcome to chance.

Rather than gamble that a love of gambling would be sufficient for the majority to vote yes, they focused on assuring the public that all the proper precautions would be taken to create a casino gambling environment of safety and integrity. Otherwise, the majority of voters might have voted no to the referendum instead of yes, and Atlantic City’s history thereafter would have been completely different.

After the referendum passed, state legislators continued to do their job in putting together an extremely detailed and well-thought out final version of the bill. Then on June 17, 1977, Byrne signed the 156-page bill into law.

Among the law’s most important provisions were the following:

  • A Casino Control Commission would be created to be in charge of licensing all New Jersey casinos and their key employees.
  • A Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE) would also be created, which would be responsible for investigating each casino’s financial stability and the background and qualifications of the owners and key employees. Based on its findings, the DGE would then make licensing recommendations to the Commission. The DGE would also be responsible for regulating each casino’s operations and enforcing compliance with the state’s casino gaming laws.

Some applicants were turned down

According to former Deputy Attorney General of the DGE Kevin O’Toole, some applicants for key executive positions were rejected because they didn’t pass scrutiny. Both the DGE and Casino Control Commission had to find the candidate acceptable.

Speaking at this year’s East Coast Gaming Conference at Harrah’s Resort on June 14, 2018, O’ Toole stated that “one of the bedrocks of the New Jersey casino gambling industry is licensing. All applicants had to show honesty and integrity of character.”

Michael Pollack, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, further pointed out that “a gaming license is a privilege, not a right.”

Another concern was the fact that when Resorts applied for its NJ casino license, its only prior casino experience was in a small country: the Bahamas. The Commission and DGE needed to ascertain whether casino experience of that nature was sufficient to operate a new casino in the US.

Although it meant having to be very selective and rejecting some candidates, the guiding principle was that it was better to be safe than risk being sorry later.

New Jersey, unlike Nevada, was in compliance from day one

Although casino gambling became legal in Nevada in 1931, questionable practices were rampant for many years.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board was not established until 1955, and it was not until the state’s Gaming Control Act was passed in 1959, that the Nevada Gaming Commission with additional regulatory responsibilities was also created. The long delay resulted in the industry being basically unregulated until then.

New Jersey, on the other hand, had the advantage of being able to review and draw upon the Nevada 1959 model and then improve it. As a result, Resorts and all other casinos that opened in Atlantic City thereafter were in compliance from day one.

There was not one instance in 40 years of any casino in Atlantic City being ordered to close due to shady practices or unethical or otherwise inappropriate or irresponsible management.

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What could have been done better in Atlantic City in the last 40 years

Obviously, the tough times that Atlantic City experienced were brought on by a combination of factors, including some that no intervention by the state could have prevented.

However, one thing Atlantic City definitely could have done better was to make more of an effort to combat the growing negative perceptions many people had not only of casino gambling but of the town itself.

As a result, the false perception that bringing casinos into this area was a bad idea rather than a good idea was perpetuated. This negative mindset contributed to the long delay between the time when New Jersey became the second state in the US to offer casino gambling and the time it first appeared in other states as well.

Atlantic City is on the rise

Over the course of the 40 tumultuous years, critics have been very outspoken about the city’s problems and quick to blame many of them on the casinos. In fact, many people wrote Atlantic City off years ago as a place that would never recover.

But look at Atlantic City now. The area is definitely on the rise. It not only has two new casinos and legalized sports betting, but also a greater variety of non-gambling options than ever before.

New restaurants are opening up all over town. The biggest names in music are performing in the Atlantic City casino hotel arenas and on the beach. The Boardwalk is packed with families enjoying not only the delightful summer breeze, but a host of family-friendly activities. Atlantic City is definitely on the rise!

A message that needs to be sent NOW

Now Atlantic City is in a prime position to send a message to the rest of the country. And the best way to do it is not just by example, but by actively publicizing and promoting itself.

I don’t think Atlantic City and New Jersey are being given anywhere near the credit they’re due. The window of opportunity to change a lot of people’s negative perceptions into positive ones is now, but it won’t last forever. And now is the perfect time to keep the positive momentum alive and send the message that regulated casino gambling is one of many great things Atlantic City has going for it and that its best days are yet to come.

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