Casinos mark 30 years in Atlantic City

May 7, 2008 6:10:14 PM PDT
When gambling supporters made their second run at getting casinos approved in 1976, New Jersey's unemployment rate was 12 percent - the highest in the nation. In Atlantic City, it was even higher, more than 13 percent. Jobs and residents were fleeing from the once-grand resort, where landmark hotels had stained carpets and peeling paint.

By 1976, Atlantic City was collecting less than 80 percent of the property taxes owed to the city. Its population had fallen from 66,198 in 1930 to 42,000 in 1976, where it has remained since. The number of hotel rooms declined by 40 percent from 1960 to 1976, and the number of conventioneers also fell from 477,000 in 1970 to 360,000 in 1975.

Proponents of legalized gambling set out to convince the state that everyone would benefit from letting people bet on roulette wheels, play blackjack or pull the levers on slot machines.

In advertisements, broadcast commercials and handbills, supporters laid out a bargain with New Jersey: You give us legalized gambling, and we'll give you a better Atlantic City and a better state.

Most of those promises were kept, although problems remain. Here's a look at how things worked out:

- JOBS: Among the promises were "a dramatic rise in employment." There can be no doubt that casinos almost instantly created thousands of new jobs, even if many of them were low-paying or heavily dependent on the largesse of gamblers to tip the staff.

When Resorts Atlantic City opened in 1978, it had 3,300 workers. Two more opened the next year, and 11,300 people were working in casinos by the end of 1979.

By 1983, more than 30,000 people had casino jobs, far surpassing the industry's most optimistic projections. The number peaked at 49,123 in 1997, but it has been declining since then, making it harder for local residents to find work. Last year, 40,788 people worked in the casinos.

The unemployment rate in Atlantic City today is 7.7 percent, half of what it was when the first casino opened.

- TAXES: While casinos pay the majority of taxes in Atlantic City, property owners are still squeezed by soaring taxes, particularly now that the city has conducted a revaluation that drastically increased the taxable value of homes and put added pressure on the already dwindling middle class to abandon the city.

- ECONOMY: Tens of billions of dollars have been invested in Atlantic City. The casinos spent $2.5 billion on goods and services last year with nearly 2,200 New Jersey companies - a figure that has tripled since 1986. Of that figure, $1.6 billion went to 1,060 businesses in Atlantic County.

But salaries paid to casino workers have remained flat at about $1.1 billion a year since 1998, leading dealers to start forming unions last year to demand better pay and benefits. And for the first time ever, revenues at the 11 Atlantic City casinos declined last year due to stiff competition from out-of-state slots parlors, leading to casino layoffs here.

In 1980, the median income for Atlantic City families was $9,807, and nearly 1 out of 5 residents lived below the poverty line. By 1990, the average income was $27,712, but 1 out of every 4 people was living in poverty - a figure that was nearly the same 10 years later.

- CRIME: A popular flier read, "Here's an accepted fact in law enforcement: the more jobs available, the less likelihood there is that the community will be victimized by rape, armed robbery, murder. It's been demonstrated time and again that places with legalized casinos have a sharp reduction in violent crime statistics."

That hasn't happened in Atlantic City, though. The crime rate shot up as casinos were added, and several key violent crime categories including murder, rape, robbery and assault remain higher than they were before the first casino opened.

In recent years, however, the overall crime rate has come down to roughly the same level as it was when Resorts opened in 1978.