ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Atlantic City has its groove on. Once equated with busloads of senior citizens headed to the slot, these days Atlantic City is, as the town's new tagline proclaims, ''always turned on."
While bus traffic is down 12 percent, gaming revenues and overall visitor numbers are on the increase, to the tune of $33 million a year, generating more than $2.8 billion in gaming revenues the first seven months of 2004 alone.
It's clear that the grand experiment that transformed the once-genteel honeymoon resort into a gambling destination 26 years ago has picked up speed in the past year. While no other gaming destination has Miss America, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Boardwalk, Atlantic City cannot afford to rest on its laurels, especially with Native American casinos sprouting across the Northeast landscape and slot machines on the horizon for Philadelphia and other key cities within driving distance. For Atlantic City to score as a high-stakes player, changes had to be made
Coming here is easier than ever, thanks to a new transportation center and direct Amtrak service from Philadelphia. There's a visitors center at the end of the Atlantic City Expressway, where maps, brochures, reservations, and the like are available. A 500,000-square-foot convention center, larger than Philadelphia's, has been a boon to the local economy. The state invested $90 million to convert the old Convention Hall, home to the Miss America pageant since 1940, into a state-of-the-art special events arena, the permanent home to both a minor hockey and football team and host to shows featuring the likes of Bette Midler, Simon & Garfunkel, Cher, and Rod Stewart.
The July 2003 opening of the billion-dollar Borgata Casino upped the ante for the rest of Atlantic City's 12 casinos, all of which are now in some kind of expansion mode
And there's more. Caesars is in the middle of transforming the former Ocean One Mall on the boardwalk into The Pier at Caesars, a $140 million version of the Forum Shops in Vegas. The 200,000-square-foot mixed-use project will include oceanfront dining and top designer emporiums representing the likes of Versace,
The cleaning up of the boardwalk, once a virtual no-man's land lined with schlock souvenir shops, is another long-overdue improvement. New shops and restaurants have opened in the past year, including Siganos Plaza at 1700 Boardwalk between Indiana Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. The stores include the flagship two-story Opa Bar and some family attractions and casual eateries, including Wacky Bear Factory and Lo Presti Pizza.
The most visible change along the Boardwalk was the addition of beach bars two summers ago, after the longstanding ban against alcohol on the beach was repealed. Four of the oceanfront casinos have opened beach bars: the Atlantic City Hilton, Bally's Atlantic City, Trump Plaza, and Caesars Atlantic City. All offer live entertainment, food, and drinks into the wee hours during summer.
The other big change in town has more to do with sleeping than dancing the night away. A new $125 million 27-story luxury-room tower at Resorts, an infusion of $400 million in equity into the Trump properties, and planned additions at Harrah's and Showboat are just a few of the ways Atlantic City is getting gussied up. These changes are all geared to the new target audience, which more and more is bypassing the bus entrance and arriving in sports cars and luxury imports.
Not all the growth is razzle-dazzle. Across town, at the bayside Gardener's Basin, home to the five-year-old, $4 million Ocean Life Center, the newly opened Back Bay Ale House is the latest place to offer a sunset view far from the casino crowd. own into quite a family attraction.
If you haven't been to this seaside gambling mecca in the past few years, make no mistake, things have changed. One visit and you'll see that this isn't your granny's Atlantic City anymore, unless granny likes to wear a leather miniskirt and halter top.
Beth D'Addono is a freelance writer in Belmont Hills, Pa.