Atlantic City: When The One Trick Pony Fails

September 17, 2014 22 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In an effort to turn its fortunes around, Atlantic City was reborn as an east coast gambling mecca in the late 1970s. In 2011, illustrating the dominance of gambling on the economy, New Jersey's casinos had approximately 33,000 employees, 28.5 million visitors, made $3.3 billion in gaming revenue, and paid $278 million in taxes. Now the one trick pony that promised to make Atlantic City a popular 21st century resort community is falling about, sending the city's economy into a downward spiral. Is this a cautionary tale for other cities looking for a one trick pony of their own?

Home of the Miss America Pageant, Atlantic City was once so popular that it served as the inspiration for the original version of the board game Monopoly. Atlantic City was incorporated on May 1, 1854 and envisioned by developers as a potential resort town. Opening on June 26, 1870, the 5.5-mile Atlantic City Boardwalk was the first boardwalk in the United States. By 1874, almost 500,000 passengers a year were coming to the city by rail on the Camden and Atlantic Railroad. Atlantic City ushered in the 20th century with a radical building boom. By 1930, the city became known as the "World's Playground."

After World War II, Atlantic City became plagued with poverty, crime, and corruption. Further decline came from the rise of competition due to the increasing popularity of places such as Miami Beach and the Bahamas. In an an effort to improve its fortunes, residents decided to invest in a one trick pony.

According to Urban Dictionary, the term "one-trick pony" is used to describe a friend, acquaintance, or stranger who has very few talents, sayings, jokes, or skills. In terms of urban development, it's when a community puts all it's eggs in one basket with the believe that the investment will completely turn things around for the better. In 1976, New Jersey voters did this, passing a referendum, approving casino gambling for Atlantic City in hopes of revitalizing the city. Two years later, Resorts International, the first legal casino on the east coast opened on May 26, 1978. With the boxer Mike Tyson having most of his fights in Atlantic City, by the end of the 1980s, Atlantic City had become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. For a split second, it appeared the one-trick pony had delivered.

Like most one-trick pony investments, what was thought of to be a success, turned out to be short term fool's gold. During the 1990s and 2000s, casinos opened all over the country, eliminating Atlantic City's stranglehold on the market. Already in decline, in 2012 Governor Christie hailed the opening of the $2.4 billion Revel casino as "a turning point" for Atlantic City's comeback and his five-year revitalization plan.

Unfortunately, Governor Christie was right. Atlantic City casino revenue peaked at $5.2 billion in 2006, but fell 44 percent to $2.9 billion last year. By October 2013, the greater Atlantic City area had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 13.8%, setting it up for a free fall in 2014. Through the first nine months of 2014, four casinos, including the two-year old Revel, the place where Ray Rice put his fist through his wive's face,  putting 8,000 residents out of work. If that isn't bad enough, further trouble could be on the way in the form of Trump Taj Mahal closing in November if concessions aren't made with unionized workers.

While still considered the "Gambling Capital of the East Coast" with nine casinos remaining, investing in casinos as the one-trick pony has not resulted in the dreams envisioned during the 1976 referendum. Where Atlantic City goes from here and how it rebounds is a big question among planning circles. As the images illustrate below, despite its troubles, there are amenities, attractions, and historic sites that Atlantic City can utilize to build itself back up. Nevertheless, it's plight should serve as a cautionary tale to cities like Jacksonville, who appear to be in search of their own one-trick ponies. Not to say we should not invest in them, but putting all of our eggs into the Landing, The Shipyards, or a new convention center won't singlehandedly turn Jacksonville's core around, anymore than the Landing did when it initially opened to great fanfare in 1987.

Perhaps the answer is something that may not be as sexy for media headlines and ribbon cutting ceremonies? Instead of attempting to force feed the core into a destination for suburbanites through the implementation of one-trick ponies, enable the district to once again become a viable self sustaining pedestrian-scale neighborhood.  It worked 100 years ago. There's no reason to believe a neighborhood designed to cater to pedestrians, as the highest priority, can't become popular once again, when such a strategy is put in place.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at

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