Atlantic City is at a crossroads.
No, wait, scratch that. Atlantic City was at a crossroads seven years ago, when gaming options were just coming to life in nearby states, especially Pennsylvania. Rather than have a really hard conversation about how the state could compete with its new competitors, New Jersey took the gaming junkie's approach — stay at the table, head down, hoping to eventually hit on a winner.
It's worked about as well, too. In 2006, with the first signs of danger threatening its East Coast monopoly, the casinos took in $5.2 billion in revenue. Last year, they brought in a bit more than half that total.
There have been plenty of high-profile failures when it comes to New Jersey and gaming, but the chief one was the decision to limit betting to a South Jersey city that's not easily accessible to most of the population. Now, the ongoing conversation about promoting Atlantic City as a tourism destination and “right-sizing” the casino industry is a bit like telling the victim of a fatal heart attack that he should have gone easier on the pork rinds. Atlantic City will not succeed by convincing people that it's the place to bring the wife and kids on a vacation, or as a romantic getaway with spas and expensive dinners. For 30 years, it's been about one thing — gambling. That's not the kind of message you change overnight, and given how fast the city is eroding, overnight might not be fast enough, anyway. The five-year trial run that Chris Christie and Steve Sweeney spoke of is destined to end in disappointment.
That will move the conversation where it should have gone a long time ago — moving casino gaming beyond the city's borders. For years, that effort has been thwarted by racetrack owners, who feared competition, and narrow-minded South Jersey political figures who insist everything below Sayreville is its own sovereign entity entitled to an industry all its own. That kind of parochial thinking has to go out the window immediately if New Jersey is to regain its swagger at the betting table. At a minimum, a casino in the Meadowlands would be a way to lure New Yorkers who have yet to take advantage of train or plane service to A.C. That might mean weaker casinos will close in the Shore town, but that's happening already. The question is whether the stronger casinos will collapse before the state makes the right call.