Ten years after Atlantic City started its gamble with legalized gaming, it has won a giant new industry but lost its innocence.
Even skeptics won't deny the resort has seen a dramatic economic turnaround since the first casino opened May 26, 1978, and turned the island into the most visited tourist destination in the United States.The casinos provide year-round jobs, tax benefits for the state's elderly and disabled and a percentage of gaming revenues for rebuilding Atlantic City neighborhoods.
But even the most optimistic observer can find flaws in how the "experiment" turned out, particularly in the deteriorated neighborhoods and shuttered shop windows just steps from the casino hotel lobbies.
Before 1978, the saying was, "The last one to cross the bridge turns out the lights," recalls Atlantic City Police Chief Joseph Pasquale. The city was dying.
Then, in a honky-tonk burst of flashing lights and ringing bells, Atlantic City was reborn. Hundreds of buses and cars now squeeze down narrow streets each day. Big-name entertainers are returning to the showrooms, and Convention Hall throbs with trade shows, heavyweight fights and other extravaganzas.
H. Steven Norton, executive vice president of Resorts International Casino Hotel, recalls the "exhilarating rush" when his casino opened as the city's first legal gaming hall. Thousands of people lined up outside, waiting for a chance to drop quarters into slot machines and slap bills onto green felt.
Last year, Atlantic City reported more than $2.8 billion in gaming revenues and more than 30 million visitors.
Twelve casino hotels tower over the city's Boardwalk and the once-barren marina section. The New Jersey gaming industry is the focus of high-stakes Wall Street business deals. And with more than 40,000 casino employees, unemployment in the region has declined to record lows.
Yet many tourists cluck in dismay at the decaying houses that still line the city's streets - thoroughfares made famous by the Monopoly game board.
The crime rate also causes concern. In 1976, the Committee to Rebuild Atlantic City promised that casino gaming would reduce violent crime in the resort.
Murders, rapes, assaults and armed robberies actually increased from 10.3 per 1,000 residents in 1977 to a high of 32 in 1981. But when adjusted to account for the millions of visitors and thousands of non-resident employees, the figures settle down to an overall reduced rate.
State gaming regulators beam with pride at having kept the casinos relatively free of organized crime's corruption, although some critics feel they wield too much control over the city. Others suggest Atlantic City needs more control - specifically, a regional or state authority to run city government. The current power struggle among state, county and local officials has delayed two important projects: a proposed new convention center and a larger airport.
"The city itself has not redeveloped as quickly as everyone hoped," said Casino Control Commissioner Valerie Armstrong. "There was a great deal of optimism in 1976 when the referendum passed that things would move quickly, but it's disappointing to see what is potentially a beautiful city not go anywhere."
Atlantic City was languishing, the victim of broadening travel horizons made possible by cheaper airfares, when the notion of legalized gaming surfaced as a way to rebuild. A referendum to legalize gambling statewide failed in 1974; a second ballot question, limiting gaming to Atlantic City, was approved by New Jersey voters Nov. 2, 1976.
The casinos have generally found New Jersey profitable. But the city never revitalized enough to improve its appearance beyond the casinos.
While the suburbs are booming with shopping centers and housing developments, Atlantic City still has no movie theater that isn't pornographic and only one well-worn supermarket. Houses on prime waterfront lots are dilapidated, owned mostly by speculators who hoped a decade ago - and still hope - to reap huge profits.
And what development has taken place has not pleased everyone.
The Rev. Dudley Sarfaty, an original member of the "Casinos: No Dice!" anti-gambling group, still believes that "a lot of the local people gambling was supposed to save were driven away."
Others want to preserve the old Atlantic City of grand seaside hotels, the Miss America Pageant, Boardwalk rolling chairs and ocean breezes.
"The worst thing to happen to Atlantic City was perhaps the failure to properly plan and protect the Boardwalk frontage architecturally so there would have been something other than solid masonry walls," said Atlantic County historian Adrian Phillips.
In a similar vein, former Gov. Brendan Byrne, who ushered in casino gambling, said Atlantic City needs to focus more attention on becoming an overall resort instead of just a casino town.