Last updated: September 07. 2013 10:40PM - 843 Views
Suzette Parmley The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Call it “a comeback.”

That’s what the heads of the Atlantic City Alliance, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and Atlantic City’s top moneymaking casino hope Miss America’s heralded return this week symbolizes.

Liza Cartmell, chief executive officer of the nonprofit alliance, projected numbers to the Inquirer Editorial Board on Wednesday. During the next two weeks, she said, the parade and pageant are expected to bring in hundreds of thousands of spectators and fill 5,000 to 6,000 room nights at the resort.

About 12,000 tickets — ranging in price from $60 to $115 — will be available for ABC’s nationally televised pageant on Sept. 15 from Boardwalk Hall.

Miss America could have an economic impact between $40 million to $45 million, of which about $20 million will come from consumers’ direct spending in Atlantic City, said CRDA executive director John Palmieri.

Whether expectations meet reality will become known after the pageant. But for now, Miss America gives Atlantic City a reason to crow and brings intangible benefits such as civic pride — something the Shore resort that has struggled against regional casino competition has desperately needed.

Tom Ballance, president and chief operating officer of the market-leading Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, acknowledged that there was no turning back the clock to 2006, when the Atlantic City casinos had their best year — $5.2 billion in total gaming revenue.

Then came Pennsylvania, New York, and, now, Maryland gambling houses that have trimmed that to just under a $3 billion gaming market and forced a survival strategy among the Shore casinos, the alliance, and CRDA.

With the advent of convenience gambling in other states, “now we are 60 miles from anywhere,” Ballance said of why Atlantic City has to offer a reason for people to make the drive. “The goal is to show Atlantic City is not a one-trick pony.”

Gov. Christie and the Legislature have played a big role in trying to turn things around and market Atlantic City as a tourism destination vs. a gambling one. A new state-run tourism district was created in early 2012, and the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority — the town’s marketing arm — merged with the CRDA last spring.

The alliance will get $30 million a year over the next four more years from the casinos to market the resort and tout its nongambling appeal. The CRDA is charged with improving the city’s infrastructure, such as better lighting on the Boardwalk and getting rid of vacant lots. It has full planning and zoning powers within the new district.

“Casinos walled themselves off from the city,” Palmieri told the board. “We are creating more points of connectivity … to integrate the casino district with the neighborhoods.”

The group stressed the need for Atlantic City to develop midweek convention business. While this has been given lip service the last few years, the resort lacks the minimum threshold of 25,000 rooms (the standard in the industry to be a serious convention town) and an airport that can bring people in from anywhere.

Palmieri said that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey recently took over Atlantic City International Airport and that discussions were taking place to add carriers to an airport that currently has just one — Spirit Airlines.

Until these key issues are resolved, it will continue to be feast or famine for the resort. It has 90 percent or more hotel occupancy in the summer, while casino operators virtually give rooms away midweek in the fall and winter to put “heads in beds.”

Online gaming is expected to start in late November and generate new revenue for the casinos. A $125.8 million conference center at Harrah’s Resort to attract conventions and a Bass Pro Shop at the Tanger Outlets mall both break ground in early fall. Restaurants and nightclubs continue to open.

In a year that saw the $2.4 billion Revel file for bankruptcy, these are crucial steps for Atlantic City to keep evolving, said the alliance’s Cartmell.

She asked that other metrics, other than gaming revenue, be the judge — that revenue from sales, luxury and occupancy taxes were all up this year from 2012. And to look no further than the year-round activities on the Boardwalk — not the least, Miss America’s return.

“This is the bigger picture for Atlantic City,” she said.

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