ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Mayor James Whelan calls this town the municipal equivalent of an ink blot test: Casino skeptics see a run-down city with a high crime rate, while fans of gambling marvel at its ability to generate millions in tax dollars.
And so it was yesterday as five members of Maryland's gambling task force visited this once-grand seaside resort to learn more about the impact of casinos here.
"Look at this vacant piece of land on the boardwalk," said task force member Robert C. Embry Jr., pointing to a sandy, ocean-front lot just three blocks away from Resorts International casino. "It's amazing to me the lack of development."
But in this city of glittering gambling halls and boarded-up public housing, task force member Joseph F. Vallario Jr. said he saw a community on the move.
"There's new buildings going up all the time," said Mr. Vallario, a state delegate from Prince George's County. He noted that a Las Vegas company is negotiating to add a 13th casino here with 2,000 hotel rooms. "I think it's still growing."
When the Maryland General Assembly opens in January, proposals to legalize casinos are expected to be a major issue. The task force, chaired by former U.S. Sen. Joseph D. Tydings, is charged with making recommendations to the governor and legislature by Dec. 1. To do that, it is holding public hearings and visiting cities to study the social and economic effects of casinos.
The panel chose Atlantic City as its first site because of its proximity and the controversy it has generated at hearings around Maryland.
The city has become a rallying cry for opponents, who claim casinos would turn Maryland communities into smaller versions of Atlantic City, replete with high crime, compulsive gambling and urban decay.
Yesterday, in meetings with everyone from the mayor to police officers, task force members heard opinions that both reinforced and undermined that argument.
A brief history
"Atlantic City would be dead without casino gambling," Mayor Whelan told the Maryland delegation while sitting in a conference room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
He gave a brief history lesson. Before casinos arrived in 1978, the city was in an economic depression. But gambling brought in thousands of new tourists and jobs. Today, the 12 casinos employ 50,000 people and generate nearly $300 million a year in state tax revenue.
While conceding that redevelopment of the rest of the city has been long overdue, he pointed to several projects now under way, including a convention center and a downtown shopping center with the city's first supermarket in years.
Casino taxes are helping to pay for both, he said.
As for crime and corruption, the city had both long before casinos arrived, Mr. Whelan argued.
"This place was corrupt," he said, noting that of the six mayors before him, four had problems with the law. Two were in office before casinos arrived and two after, he said.
Crime a punishment?
The task force members probed. What about the skyrocketing crime rate after the opening of casinos? Mr. Embry asked.
Mr. Whelan said that the per capita statistics were unfair because they didn't account for the tens of millions of tourists who visit each year.
"The crime rate in Orlando went up when they opened Disney World," Mr. Whelan said. "Does Mickey Mouse cause crime?"
Mr. Embry wondered why the city's population, now about 35,000, has actually declined since casinos opened. Mr. Whelan attributed to suburban flight. "That's a trend of urban life," he said.
Across town at the city police headquarters, Sgt. Steve Mangam provided task force members with a different point of view. He said casinos had spawned more crime, as well as fraudulent crime reports.
On the one hand, gangs of pickpockets come into the city and clean out 50 or 100 victims on a casino floor in 20 minutes, Sergeant Mangam said. On the other, women sell their jewelry to gamble and then file reports saying it was lost or stolen to explain the disappearance to their husbands.
"The biggest thief in our town is the sink in the ladies' room," Sergeant Mangam said wearily.
The officer noted that before casinos opened, Atlantic City had three pawn shops. It now has 30 stores that pay cash for gold, he said.
Although the task force members didn't notice any Marylanders here yesterday, there were probably several thousand in town.
Of the 27 million visitors who came to the city for a day trip last year, an estimated 2 million -- or 7.3 percent -- were from Maryland, according to an analysis prepared for investors by Salomon Brothers investment house.
Gambling supporters in Annapolis argue that by legalizing casinos, Maryland could recoup millions of dollars that leave the state each year for Atlantic City.
Mayor Whelan made clear he hopes that never happens. "Keep sending those folks up I-95," he told the Marylanders.
The task force was to continue its visit today with a tour of Bally's Park Place and meetings with various city business people and merchants.