ATLANTIC CITY – Stand here on the boardwalk, between Mississippi Avenue and Columbus Place, and behold the shadow that haunts this whole seaside resort. It’s a big building, utterly empty. It used to be a gambling casino, but the self-described “very stable genius” who owned it ran the joint into the ground.
It was called Trump Plaza.
The remains of its former identity are still there on the big window above the front doors. The gold letters were pulled off, but the skeletal outline of “Trump Plaza” remains pretty clear. And it’s a symbol – not only for Atlantic City, but for all the places, like Baltimore, where so much has been invested in legalized gambling, and so much has fallen short of promise.
In this town, they’re dealing with several casinos that have been forced to close – some of them, Trump operations. In Baltimore, one week since the running of the Preakness, we’re watching Pimlico as it’s placed on life support, and wondering if the creation of casinos around Maryland will pump real money into important civic efforts, such as public schools, or if Atlantic City’s a warning cry to other cities and states.
The latest South Jersey Economic Review says more than 25,000 jobs were lost in Atlantic City over the past decade, and the city’s GDP declined more than 21 percent over that time. It’s the biggest drop of any metro area in the country. Meanwhile, residents complain loudly of crippling property taxes.
Five casinos here shut down in two years, and the day after the 2016 election, the city was taken over by the state to avoid default.
What ought to make places like Baltimore anxious is that we brought in legalized gambling to the same sound of trumpets that Atlantic City once heard. Back in the 1970s, when the games began, gambling interests told city leaders here that blackjack and slots and crap games would bring the city back to life.
Most of the casinos started raking in fast money – but it took a few decades before the economic impact hit the rest of the town. You didn’t want to wander too far off the boardwalk and the bright lights of the casinos, especially after dark. The gambling bosses like it that way – it kept everybody and their money under casino roofs.
There’s a new book, “Atlantic City,” by Brian Rose, lamenting such problems.
In an interview with the website Citylab, Rose described things looking “sketchy on the city streets, and that’s as true now as it was in 1984. Buses brought day-trippers from New York and Philadelphia directly to the casinos, and others drove the freeway into the vast parking garages attached to the casinos. It was not necessary to ever walk on the street. That hasn’t changed.”
Donald Trump was one of the first casino developers here. He had three properties, which ran into repeated bankruptcy court troubles. The Trump Taj Mahal is now the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. Trump Marina is the Golden Nugget Atlantic City, and Trump Plaza’s empty and abandoned.
Unless you stood there on the boardwalk, between Mississippi Avenue and Columbus Place, though, and looked up at the emptiness of the former Trump Plaza, you might have figured this city’s doing pretty well.
Memorial Day holiday crowds along the boardwalk were bustling, and casinos were noisy and energized.
And there are some positive signs here. Police say violent crimes and property crimes are down significantly. The long line of small shops along the boardwalk report business is pretty good.
Meanwhile, over on Arctic Avenue, the legendary White House Sub Shop’s still packing in the customers, as they have since 1946. They’re quick to deny that the shop’s name has anything to do with the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of several books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.