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4:36 pm
Mon September 1, 2014

As Casinos Close, Atlantic City Tries To Pivot Focus Elsewhere

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Atlantic City and gambling have been synonymous for decades, but there's a big shift underway in the Jersey Shore town. Over the holiday weekend two casinos on the iconic boardwalk shut their doors. A third is slated to close later this month.

Emma Jacobs of member station WHYY sent this story about a changing Atlantic City.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: First, the Showboat closed yesterday afternoon. The last patrons filtered out the doors to the boardwalk, some wearing the casino's trademark Mardi Gras beads. A small crowd was waiting- the media, passersby who stopped to watch, casino employees who'd recently finished their last shifts.

RUTH ANNE JOYCE: Over the years, these customers would give my kids Christmas cards and birthday cards and graduation cards. This is a family.

JACOBS: Ruth Anne Joyce and her husband were both day-one employees, meaning they helped open the place in 1987.

JOYCE: We were hired as husband and wife, both bartenders. And here we are, going on 28 years later and we'll both be filing for unemployment this week.

JACOBS: Back when they started, Atlantic City's gambling palaces had a virtual monopoly east of the Rocky Mountains. There was Las Vegas and then Atlantic City.

The way Marty Woods tells it, the casinos transformed a sleepy beach town where most residents could only find work in the summer. Woods took over one of Atlantic City's two pawn shops from his father back in the late '50s. He says when the casinos came they attracted gamblers from all over the country.

MARTY WOODS: I had people standing in line to borrow money, it was unbelievable. And they would be back two and three times the same day. They won, they took it out, they - so forth and so on. They brought it back, but that didn't last that long.

JACOBS: Other states got into the action and that chipped away at Atlantic City's gaming revenues. But the problems accelerated in the last couple of years, as a tough economy, combined with casinos opening up just hours away in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland.

The second casino closing today is the Revel. It's relatively new, glamorous. It broke ground just before the recession hit and was completed by private investors at a cost of more than $2 billion.

Lori Baucom, a massage therapist at the spa, was sure it would attract people back to the city.

LORI BAUCOM: There were some warnings, but none of us believed it would happen because we felt so safe, that this was the place that was going to take this place to the new level, you know? I mean, these guys are mourning a lifetime and I'm here to support that because we're morning something different; we're mourning a hope.

JACOBS: How bad is it? By year's end, Atlantic City could go from 12 to just eight casinos, losing 8,000 jobs along the way. Atlantic City mayor Don Guardian says the losses are staggering.

MAYOR DON GUARDIAN: There really is no precedent, there's no city that's faced anything like this.

JACOBS: Atlantic City is trying to pivot and focus on growing its tourism and convention business, but 65 percent of its tax revenues currently come from casinos. Guardian and others here seem confident that someone will buy up the closed properties at fire sale prices, but if they transform into hotels or timeshares, the jobs won't all return. Some people will leave South Jersey all together - and that could include Alex Stopa, sitting on the busy boardwalk before going to his last shift as a dealer at Revel. Stopa says employees are trying to keep winning smiles on for the customers in the casino's final hours.

ALEX STOPA: There is one face when in private life, but when you are at the table you are the actor; you're on the stage. You sort of have to entertain. So we're trying to keep this positive outlook.

JACOBS: But beyond the fa├žade, Stopa is giving up on the industry. With a family to support, he'll train to work in IT support instead. He'd like to stay in South Jersey, but if the jobs aren't here he's prepared to move. And this could be Atlantic City's challenge - to adapt away from gambling fast enough to keep the region's economy afloat.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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