With shrinking profits, casino closings and layoffs the new norm, nearly two-thirds of New Jerseyans say Atlantic City’s best days are behind it, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. Just 22 percent say the resort’s best days are yet to come, and 15 percent are unsure.
That gambling has not benefited the entire city and its residents seems in part to be driving this sentiment. An overwhelming 63 percent of New Jerseyans say gambling has benefited only the casino-hotels while 25 percent believe gambling has been good for both residents and the casinos. This perspective is not new. Even in the early boom years of casinos, a 1982 Eagleton Poll found just 30 percent of respondents thought gambling had benefited both parties. Similar results were found in 1986 and 1999 polls.
Despite Atlantic City’s aspirations to be known for more than casinos, New Jerseyans widely see gambling as its defining feature. While 25 percent view the city as a major convention and resort destination for all types of visitors, 63 percent believe it is only known for gambling. This is markedly down from 1982 when nearly half the state thought Atlantic City was becoming a major resort, and even 1999, when the number had dropped to 34 percent.
“The early days of gambling prompted some optimism that the industry would make Atlantic City a major resort destination,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling and professor of political science at Rutgers. “But New Jerseyans were always somewhat cynical about the prospects, as our early polling shows. That most now think the city’s best days are in the past reflects the recognition of serious problems there.”
As hope wanes for Atlantic City’s future, Garden State gamblers may be developing split loyalties. Nearly half who gamble on most trips to Atlantic City report visiting a casino outside New Jersey in the past year. For less frequent gamblers, the lure is not quite as great: 33 percent say they have gone out of state to gamble. Most (68 percent) of Atlantic City gamblers still prefer to gamble there, but 28 percent are now more likely to gamble elsewhere as bordering states continue to build casinos.
Results are from a statewide poll of 842 residents contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, 2014. The margin of error is +/- 4.4 percentage points.
Though still popular, resort’s future isn’t bright
Despite concerns for its future, 91 percent of New Jerseyans have visited Atlantic City at least once, 43 percent within the past year. Thirty-five percent say they plan a trip within the coming 12 months. While still quite dubious about the city’s future, recent visitors are more positive than other New Jerseyans, 28 percent to 17 percent. Likewise, 29 percent expecting a future trip to the resort are positive compared to the 14 percent with no plans to visit. Those who have not visited recently are not necessarily more negative, but instead are more likely to offer no opinion. But those not planning a future visit are far more negative: 71 percent think the best days are in the past compared to 58 percent looking toward another visit.
Twenty-eight percent of frequent gamblers think the city’s best days are ahead, but only 23 percent of occasional gamblers feel the same.
“While visitors are more positive about the future of Atlantic City than those who don’t go, most are still sure the city’s best days are in the past,” said Redlawsk. “An even bigger concern may be the drop in the percentage who visited last year compared to those planning a visit in the next 12 months. If this represents a trend, the future will almost certainly not be better for Atlantic City.”
Some gamblers turn elsewhere
The poll finds some truth in the theory that the rise of casinos in neighboring states has contributed to the closure of four Atlantic City casinos and put a fifth in possible jeopardy. About half the resort’s tourists gamble during at least some of their visits; just over a quarter of those gamblers say they are now more likely to go out of state than to keep coming to the shore.
Gamblers who visited Atlantic City during the past year are more loyal than those who did not, by a 72 percent to 62 percent margin. Loyalty is even stronger among gamblers with plans to visit within a year: 78 percent say they will remain loyal to Atlantic City, compared to 49 percent with no immediate plans to return.
“No doubt Atlantic City’s casino industry is in trouble, and our results suggest that the problem is long-term,” Redlawsk noted. “The rise of alternatives may be appealing to a growing number of New Jersey gamblers. The key seems to be finding a way to make sure gamblers return. Once out of the habit, the evidence is that they will continue to look elsewhere.”
Casinos, not residents, have benefited
While casinos may be struggling, New Jerseyans believe by more than 2-to-1 that the industry, rather than the people of Atlantic City, has benefited from gambling. There has been little change over time on this question, and few differences among key demographic groups.
Visitor status does not change views, and even those who gamble the most are no more likely to think gambling has benefited Atlantic City residents more than other New Jerseyans.
However, there is a much greater belief that gambling has helped the city as a whole among those who consider Atlantic City a major resort destination with features beyond gambling. Nearly 40 percent of these Garden Staters see shared benefits to the gaming industry, compared to 21 percent of those who view the city primarily as a gambling destination.
Few see Atlantic City as a major resort
Relatively few New Jerseyans see Atlantic City as a major convention and resort city for all types of visitors. Evenly divided near the dawn of casino gambling in 1982, Garden Staters have become increasingly more likely to perceive Atlantic City as mostly for and about gambling, rather than as a resort for all.
Women are nine points more likely than men to say Atlantic City has become a major resort, although most still say it is mainly about gambling. Senior citizens are most likely to see it as an all-around resort, at 32 percent, compared to 18 percent of residents ages 50-64, and just over a quarter of younger New Jerseyans. Those in households making under $50,000 are somewhat more likely than others income groups to see Atlantic City as a major resort destination, at 31 percent.
Visiting the city does seem to affect perceptions: Around one-third of recent visitors or those who plan to visit within 12 months say the resort is a major destination for all. Only about 20 percent of others agree. Thirty-three percent of Atlantic City gamblers say the city offers more than just gambling; 20 percent of non-gamblers think likewise.