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Nancy Smith

Atlantic City and Florida? Like Chalk and Cheese

July 23, 2014 - 6:00pm

The plight of Atlantic City makes gleeful reading for those who oppose gambling in Florida.

I suppose it's because the three, soon to be four failed casinos along the Atlantic City Boardwalk give naysayers a show-and-tell for dismissing destination casinos in the Sunshine State ... Look! Economic and societal ruin in the making!

The media are quick to make the Atlantic City-Florida connection. Latest up to the plate in that regard is the Tampa Bay Times, which ran an editorial last week, "More gambling a losing bet for Florida." It used Atlantic City to segue into its case for the prosecution. The editorial begins, "There's a lesson for Florida in ... the New Jersey beach town that sought to re-create its former glory by marketing itself as Vegas East."

Please. This comparison is so ridiculous. Whatever you think about gambling -- love it, tolerate it, fear it, want it out -- please deal with reality: There is absolutely no comparison between venues.

Florida is a thriving, full-service vacation destination; Atlantic City is a seaside town that went from posh-to-rundown, a town the voters of New Jersey decided 36 years ago could revitalize itself by building a casino economy. Florida, Atlantic City ... the two are miles apart in more than geography.

To borrow a phrase from the Brits, they're like chalk and cheese.

Even gaming consultant Steve Norton, who was in on the transformation of Atlantic City three decades ago, says, "If we made a mistake in Atlantic City, it was in not limiting the number of casinos, like almost every succeeding casino jurisdiction."

But Florida would not be making that mistake. Gaming talk here is nothing if not casino-stingy. One or two casinos in strategic locations was the only buzz I heard during the last legislative session.

Atlantic City is spiraling downward not because it failed, but because over the 36 years it was a huge boon to the state and to the region. Connecticut saw its residents making the weekend drive to spend their disposable income in Atlantic City casinos. So the state made a deal with its dwindling Indian tribes to build a pair of casinos near New London. Then Massachusetts made casinos happen. So did next-door neighbor Pennsylvania -- which has been the real killer for A.C. And a casino will open by the end of the decade in the heart of Manhattan. The thing is, Northeastern states have found a way to get in on the action and keep their money at home.

Atlantic City, meanwhile, had little else to entice visitors. It made no effort to roll with the times and diversify its entertainment.The casinos failed for years to plan for the day when they wouldn't be the only game in town. For decades, they were content to offer gambling and little else.

What Atlantic City reminds me of is the first shopping mall we had years ago on U.S. 1 in the middle of Stuart. It was the only game in town for years, but its biggest anchors were Beall's and Sears. It got old, the population shifted north and during the mid-1980s a developer came in and plunked down a big new regional mall virtually at the Port St. Lucie line. It had a modern movie complex and upscale department stores, the kind we previously could only find in West Palm Beach. The old mall, meanwhile, didn't have a plan to compete. Little by little, its stores went downhill and out of business.

It's what happens in a free-market economy. Not just to shopping malls, but to cities and towns, too. Nevertheless, Atlantic City will find a way to reinvent itself, just as it did in 1976.

Steve Norton's point is my point: Florida isn't part of the Northeast, where a casino glut has formed. We are a peninsular state isolated by our great size and distance from large population centers like Miami and Orlando to any state border. We are not threatened by Georgia or Alabama. How would one or two or even three destination resort casinos go the way of Atlantic City? I don't see it.

Florida is already a vacation destination. It depends on visitors from around the world, and many potential tourists prefer destinations with gaming available. Why do we want to limit their choice and our tax revenue either to Indian casinos or poker rooms and slot machines in made-over pari-mutuel facilities? It makes no sense.

Most nearby beach resorts, in the Bahamas and Caribbean, have casino gaming, and Norton claims Jamaica and Bermuda have bills to authorize gaming there, too.

Says Norton, "Singapore has proved that family attractions, like theme parks, can coexist with casino gaming, and Atlantic City has had no negative impact on the nearby beach resorts of Ocean City and the Wildwoods."

Atlantic City's tailspin comes from its position in the very beginning. It simply never did have the strong assets going for it that Florida has, and it never tried to create them. The good news is, city leaders there have the will to effect a comeback.

Wall Street analysts say contraction is actually good for Atlantic City. The closings and layoffs are an economic self-correction to what had been an oversaturated market. Even Atlantic City's mayor, Don Guardian, says the market will determine how many casinos it can support. He vows to remake the city as a place with lots to do besides gambling.

Florida already has lots to do besides gambling.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.

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