FOR THOSE who enjoy spending time in casinos, Atlantic City's big gamble has worked. But for those who live in that New Jersey town of 38,000, 20 years of casino gambling has proved a mixed blessing.
The community remains dilapidated, despite recent efforts to start plowing back casino taxes into Atlantic City. Some 4,000 homes have been built, some of the worst slums have been cleared, crime is down, and there's a stunning $83 million high school overlooking the Jersey wetlands.
Yet once you leave the casino areas along the Boardwalk and inlet, and the costly roadways and Convention Center boulevard designed for visitors, Atlantic City remains a city that is both depressing and full of unfulfilled promises.
Indeed, for the first 15 years after casinos were legalized, gambling operators used loopholes to avoid spending tax revenues on city redevelopment. Instead, they diverted $175 million in gambling taxes for hotel expansions.
Now a new casino scheme to launch a second wave of gambling hotels has led to a state pledge of a $330 million road-tunnel project and 150 acres of free land. But the cost is high: Nine houses in the city's most upscale black neighborhood will be demolished.
Such is the nature of progress, Atlantic City style. Corruption at City Hall has been uprooted. The city has its first supermarket. The jobless rate has fallen from 15 percent to 12.5 percent. More casino taxes are spent on redevelopment.
It remains a city within a city. Gamblers -- "day-trippers" arriving by bus -- spend $4 billion a year, most of it on the town's 35,000 slot machines.
Has gambling been a success? The city isn't as rundown. Surrounding boroughs have grown because nearly all the 49,000 casino workers live there. The prospect of family-oriented casino-hotels holds out hope.
But the toll has been heavy. Atlantic City's downtown shopping district disappeared. So did neighborhoods near the casinos. Only 66 of the town's 313 restaurants survived. The quiet ambience of a fading beach resort has been transformed.
Basing a community's economy on gambling has not proved a winner for the residents of Atlantic City. Not by a long shot.
Pub Date: 6/14/98