Battered by competition, Atlantic City casinos offer lesson for Maryland

Open gambling tables and slot machines were easy to find this week at the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, now that the standing-room crowds once common to the high tourist season at the world's most famous boardwalk have found spots closer to home to place their bets.

The Trump Plaza's 30-year run is coming to an end, making it one of four casinos here that since January have closed or announced they will close by the fall. That's four of 12 casinos, taking with them nearly 9,000 jobs — roughly a quarter of the city's casino employment.

"It's devastating," said Marie Mazzeo, a cocktail server at Trump Plaza who has held the job since the casino/hotel opened in 1984. "People who have worked here for 30 years have no idea what they're going to do."

From the gambling floor to the offices of city leaders in politics and business, people here are trying to figure out what's next as the erstwhile center of East Coast casino gambling suffers the impact of mushrooming competition from Maryland to Massachusetts and — according to one analysis — diminishing public appetite. As Maryland's fifth casino prepares to open next month, industry experts say the Atlantic City lesson is that gambling alone is not enough.

"I think the city just needs to find an alternative beyond slot machines," said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Slot machines were a great attraction for 30 years, but that's just not going to do it anymore."

Alan Woinski, who has been following the business for about 20 years as president of Gaming USA, said he could see Atlantic City's slump coming years ago, as its regional monopoly slipped away and its casinos were slow to invest in developing a fresh appeal.

"The problem is, that 'build it and they will come' mentality works," but only until more casinos are built closer to where your far-flung customers live, said Woinski, whose company publishes newsletters on the gambling industry. "I call it a zero-sum game. Everybody's finally starting to realize that, but it's too late."

Too late for the Atlantic Club, which closed in January; and for the Showboat, which plans to shut down next month; and for Trump Plaza and the Revel, which are expected to close in September if no one buys them.

"Atlantic City is in the process of determining what it wants to do to become a destination," said Jan Jones Blackhurst, executive vice president of government relations and communication for Caesars Entertainment Corp., which owns the Showboat and three other Atlantic City casinos. Caesars also leads the corporate group that plans to open the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore on Aug. 26.

Blackhurst, who was mayor of Las Vegas in the 1990s as the city began transforming itself from a gambling mecca to an entertainment and convention center with broader appeal, said Atlantic City's slump gives her no worries about the Baltimore project.

"Maryland is very well positioned because of where it is, the supply, the demand," Blackhurst said.

If Atlantic City's troubles are a warning to offer more than just gambling, she said the Horseshoe already plans to do that by taking advantage of its location near M&T; Bank Stadium and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"We're another part of that entertainment. We're part of the Inner Harbor, we're linked to the stadiums," said Blackhurst, adding that the whole area becomes a destination.

She predicted that the MGM Resorts International casino expected to open in 2016 at National Harbor in Prince George's County — a waterfront complex of restaurants, hotels, offices, a convention center, entertainment and shopping — will succeed for the same reason.

MGM officials declined to comment on for this article. David Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Cos., an affliate of which owns Maryland Live casino at Arundel Mills mall, was traveling and unable to respond to questions.

"Maryland can learn from Atlantic City," said Joe Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. "If you already have a diverse marketplace, you're going to be in better shape."

Atlantic City is "looking into diversifying into dining and entertainment. Into golf, which is part of entertainment. Into retail. These numbers are up," he said.

That effort to bolster Atlantic City as a tourist destination, rather than a gambling center, included a $30 million state investment in 2011 and the creation of the Atlantic City Alliance. Its president, Elizabeth Cartmell, said the effort has been paying off.

Part of it re-emphasizes the town's eternal draw, the beach. The city's second annual Sand Sculpting World Cup drew 200,000 people this summer. Country star Blake Shelton and the band Lady Antebellum will each draw 60,000 more to concerts on the beach in the next few weeks, Cartmell said, and in September, the town will host a popular professional beach volleyball tournament for the second straight year.

The more successful casinos are reinventing themselves, Cartmell said, bringing in headline entertainment, celebrity chefs and other attractions. The new owner of the Claridge Hotel is adding retail space on the first floor and a children's museum on the second, she said, and the Golden Nugget has turned its old bus depot into one of the town's most successful nightclubs, Haven.

Whille Caesars is closing the Showboat, the company also is investing $70 million in a 250,000-square foot convention center at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, in the marina district.

"We're not saying this is not painful, and it's not going to happen overnight," Cartmell said.

Still, Atlantic City's hotel/casinos make about 70 percent of their money on gambling, while in Las Vegas the ratio is nearly reversed: nearly 40 percent of the revenue is from gambling, the rest from entertainment and restaurants, Schwartz said.

Kelly said nongambling revenues in town are up more than $160 million since 2012, although gambling revenue has dropped more quickly. Last year's gambling revenue of $2.9 billion marked a 45 percent drop from the peak of $5.2 billion in 2006.

By the end of that year, the expansion of gambling on the East Coast was well under way, as tribal and commercial casinos opened in Connecticut, Delaware and West Virginia. In 2006, Pennsylvania opened the first of its 12 commercial racetrack and stand-alone casinos, putting more pressure on Maryland to get into the act.

Maryland's first casino, Hollywood Casino Perryville, opened in 2010 — the first of six planned. It was soon followed by a behemoth commercial slots and electronic table games center at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, the first commercial casino in New York, a key market for Atlantic City.

Between Maine and West Virginia there are now more than 50 tribal and commercial casinos, said Gaming USA's Woinski, with more planned in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York and the first in Massachusetts.

As supply grows, demand may be slipping, said Keith Foley, a senior vice president with Moody's Investors Service. Last month, Moody's downgraded its outlook for the U.S. gambling business from "stable" to "negative" after disappointing revenue reports from casinos across the country, with the exception of Las Vegas. Las Vegas is expected to top regional markets, where gambling revenues are projected to drop 3 percent to 5 percent in the next 18 months, Moody's said.

"Whoever is gambling is not spending as much money as before," Foley said, although he could not explain why spending on gambling was lagging behind other categories, such as retail. It appears, he said, that "something is changing."

Moody's focused on demand rather than supply, but did mention that the continued gambling expansion would have a "further cannibalizing effect" on earnings.

In a report last week on the downturn in Atlantic City's June casino revenue, Cameron McKnight of Wells Fargo Securities found a silver lining in the upheavals along the boardwalk.

"We view the potential closures/restructurings of Showboat, Trump Plaza and Revel as a positive for the long-run health of the Atlantic City gaming industry," McKnight wrote.

That's also how it looked to Todd Hettrich, a slot attendant who has worked at Trump Plaza for 25 years. He's 60, has been in the business since the 1970s in Lake Tahoe, owns a home near the boardwalk and has no plans to leave.

On Thursday afternoon, as he tended to a few customers in the nearly empty casino, he glanced at the nearly 1,700 flashing machines around him.

They'll soon go dark, but that won't dim his hopes for his beloved city.

"This notion that Atlantic City is on its deathbed is really off the mark," Hettrich said. Once the struggling casinos "are flushed from the system, things will even out. Take it from me, Atlantic City is the real deal. Where else can you play the casino, eat the world's best seafood, go to the beach and take the kids to the amusement park, all without having to move your car?"

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