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Tourists walk along the Atlantic City boardwalk at Bally's on July 2. / Bob Deutsch, USA TODAY

ATLANTIC CITY - This summer, even Pinky is blue.

That's Pinky Kravitz - the Voice of Atlantic City, Chairman of the Boardwalk, the New Jersey city's biggest and oldest booster, a man who is relentlessly, famously, sometimes improbably positive.

"Yes, I'm discouraged,'' he admits. He turns 87 on Friday, still at the mic of his daily radio show, Pinky's Corner, after more than 55 years on air. "Who wouldn't be discouraged with so many people being thrown out of work? People are saying 'What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?'''

The problem: Casino gambling, which when legalized four decades ago was supposed to help Atlantic City reclaim its pre-air conditioning, pre-jet travel, pre-Las Vegas glory, is besieged by out-of-state competition.

Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, now New York State - "We never thought we'd be surrounded,'' he says.

But even in the years when buses rolled in from all over the East Coast, gaming wealth never spilled very far into the shabby neighborhoods in the casinos' shadows. Gaming tax revenues only bolstered the bankrupt local politics.

And this summer, three years into New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's last-ditch, five-year revival plan for Atlantic City, it's clear that the roulette wheel and slot machine have done as much as they're going to do for America's first great beach resort.

Casino revenue has declined almost every month for the past eight years and now amounts to just half of the $5 billion reported for 2006. Atlantic Club (1,600 jobs) closed in January, Showboat (2,100 jobs) will close next month, and several of the 10 surviving casino-hotels probably will shut or shrink.

That may include Revel, a 70-story-high glass extravaganza that Christie called "a game-changer for Atlantic City'' when it opened two years ago after being completed with an emergency infusion of $261 million in state tax credits.

Since then, Revel has twice filed for bankruptcy protection. Built for $2.4 billion, it's expected to sell for no more than a few hundred million at auction next month.

These days, bad news is the talk of Pinky's Corner: Reductions in casino property valuations that will devastate the city's tax base. The U.S. Supreme Court's rebuff of New Jersey's bid (designed to help its casinos) to overturn a federal ban on sports betting. New York State's imminent approval of casinos, one probably near the Jersey line.

Worst of all, there's growing pressure for the state to allow a casino at the Meadowlands Sports Complex near New York City, which would end Atlantic City's in-state monopoly.

Christie has called 2014 "a critical year'' in which Atlantic City gaming must at least begin to show improvement. It hasn't, and last week the state Senate president, long a defender of the A.C. gaming monopoly, admitted to The Record of North Jersey that he's secretly talked to Meadowlands casino advocates about a 2016 ballot referendum on the issue.

"Atlantic City had a good business model,'' says Paul DeBole, an economist who studies the gaming business. "But so did Blockbuster.''

Kravitz is discouraged, not defeated. He doesn't gamble, but says he knows one sure thing: Atlantic City will come back. It always has.

Once the queen of resorts

On his show this month Kravitz was talking about the 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention in - amazing as it may seem -- Atlantic City.

It was improbable at the time, too.

Atlantic City was world-famous for its Boardwalk (1870), amusement pier (1882) and salt water taffy (circa 1883). It hosted the first Miss America pageant in 1921 and provided the street names on the Monopoly board, brought to market by Parker Brothers in 1935.

By 1964, the resort was decades past its prime. But New Jersey Gov. Richard Hughes got President Lyndon Johnson to hold the convention here.

Kravitz, like everyone else, thought it was a coup.

It was a disaster.

Kravitz was managing a bar called Luigi's Gondola Room, where he also did his radio show each night. He began hearing complaints about the hotels, one of which had run out of cotton towels and given guests paper ones. Some switchboards couldn't handle the volume of calls. Some places didn't even have air conditioning.

Two NBC News execs who wandered into Luigi's complained to Kravitz. "They said, 'What the hell's going on in this town?' That's when I knew we were in trouble.''

The national news media spread the word. "We got a lot of publicity - bad publicity,'' Kravitz says. "We were unprepared for the quality and quantity of the people who came.''

Each summer, the crowds got smaller. The Boardwalk got shabbier. The city, facing the usual litany of urban problems - street crime, drugs, arson, white flight - was becoming a slum by the sea.

Casino gambling, still widely regarded as virtually satanic, emerged as the only hope. In 1976, New Jersey voters decided to allow it in, and only in, Atlantic City. Two years later the first casino opened.

"QUEEN OF RESORTS REIGNS AGAIN" proclaimed The Press. Atlantic City became the first city outside Nevada with legal casino gambling.

Soon, there were casinos with Vegas pedigrees (Sands, Caesars, Golden Nugget). Big names came to entertain (Frank Sinatra), compete (Mike Tyson) and gamble (Michael Jordan). Annual visitors jumped from 6 million before legalization to more than 30 million.

Gaming tax revenues built housing and schools, but the contrast between the casinos and the rest of the city was stark. Casino ads attracted more than high rollers; some who came to work or play wound up on the street. "Every time a new casino opened, we'd see 10% more people,'' says Dan Brown of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.

Even the Boardwalk wasn't the same. To Kravitz's disappointment, legal gambling made the city's old gift for promotion irrelevant. ''Each casino was an entity unto itself,'' he says, focused on luring people inside the casinos and keeping them there.

Steve Norton, a former Resorts International executive who helped open the first casino, says it was never gambling's job to rebuild the city: "We created a jobs machine for South Jersey. If the workers lived outside the city, we couldn't help that.''

But by showing that casinos could provide a state tax revenue windfall without giving the devil the key to the city, A.C. ensured the eventual demise of its regional gaming dominance. In 2006 Pennsylvania opened its first gaming house; in eight years, Atlantic City lost more than 10,000 casino hotel jobs.

As Atlantic City casino tax revenues declined, so did city services. The Boardwalk began to feel scarier ?? there were derelicts, panhandlers, hustlers - and look shabbier. Several tourists were murdered.

In 2011 Christie unveiled plans for a state-run Tourism District that would police, clean and brand the area around the casinos and the Boardwalk, and an effort to attract more meetings, conventions and non-gaming tourists to fill rooms off-season and mid-week. Revel, with its emphasis on "resort" over "casino" would epitomize the new approach.

Despite the state's efforts, Atlantic City faces enormous obstacles to self-transformation. Air service is limited, and the landscape is pocked with empty lots, vacant buildings and strip joints (all of which can be seen from the window of the convention and visitors office). None of this shouts "resort.''

But if Atlantic City seems a risky political entanglement for a man with presidential aspirations, Christie has embraced the conundrum, and appeared here repeatedly to cut ribbons and give pep talks. When Revel opened he called it "the model for the future.''

Unfortunately, gamblers - who still pay the bills here - do not agree.

A city of emotion and promotion

At dusk, the Voice of Atlantic City is standing on his Boardwalk. Kravitz is 6-4, with a shock of white hair and pale skin. He's wearing a Hawaiian shirt featuring several vivid shades of red and pink, white shorts, knee-length white socks and tan suede loafers.

He's lost the parking ticket for this silver Cadillac SUV, but it doesn't matter, because even the attendants know who he is ("Yo, Pink!") and what he stands for.

That afternoon, a caller to Pinky's Corner, put it like this: "He's been so positive, no matter what, in everything he's done. He's always said, 'It's going happen, we're going to make it.'''

Kravitz's works are manifest, including the Miss America statue outside the old convention hall and a vinyl mural of the set from HBO's series Boardwalk Empire that covers a vacant lot.

Even in the dark times after 1964, he says, "I always felt something would happen here. We have a history. We've gone through the good times and the bad times. Even Prohibition was great here.''

(Kravitz insists the mayhem on Boardwalk Empire, set in Atlantic City, is fictitious. He knew Nucky Johnson, the political boss on whom Steve Buscemi's character is based. He says he once tried to sell Nucky a book of raffle tickets out in front of the old Ritz Carlton. "He gave me twenty bucks and told me to throw away the tickets.''

As always, he sees reason for optimism. The Miss America pageant came back to town last year after leaving in 2005. There's a nightly light show outside Boardwalk Hall. The nation's second largest observation wheel is coming to Steel Pier.

"The casinos are finally working together. We have the Tourism District,'' he says. "Things are going to happen.'' He's not sure what, but that's the point: Before gambling made it complacent, Atlantic City specialized in attracting visitors with the odd and unexpected.

He ticks off bygone attractions: The horse that used to dive 40 feet off Steel Pier into the ocean; the room-sized Underwood typewriter on Garden Pier; the 20-foot-high tire that rolled down the Boardwalk; the diving bell that took a dozen people at a time to the "bottom of the sea" off the end of a pier.

Few towns ever rose so high, fell so low, and came so far back as Atlantic City. Now, it must find another way to turn sand into gold. "You can't hang your head,'' says Kravitz. "I'm a very positive person.''



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Once fabled Atlantic City hits free fall

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