Sandy Stirs Up Political Trouble In AC

Devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy shut down casinos and stoked the flames of an ongoing political dispute in the East Coast’s biggest gambling town. Is Atlantic City heading in the right direction, or is it a ship without a captain?

Aerial rendering of proposed tourism district improvements in Atlantic City. Credit: The Jerde Partnership

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As New Jersey begins picking up the pieces left in Hurricane Sandy’s path, a new storm is brewing between Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford and Chris Christie, the state’s much-discussed Republican governor.

Christie sharply criticized Langford (and referred to him as a “rogue mayor”) this week for instructing citizens during the storm to either leave Atlantic City or relocate to emergency shelters set up by the municipality in several of the city’s public schools. This directly contradicted an evacuation order issued by the governor that called for all residents to flee the city.

The exchange again highlighted what has been an often-antagonistic relationship between the Christie and the Democratic leader of the popular-yet-struggling resort city. Only two weeks prior, Christie had derided Langford as “impossible to work with in any significant kind of way.” The two have squared off for years, most notably over a “tourism district,” proposed by the governor, that now funnels millions of state dollars into security and beautification measures along the city’s seaside gambling district. The mayor compared the seemingly preferential handling of tourists versus residents in one of New Jersey’s most crime-ridden cities to South African Apartheid systems.

While comparisons to systematic racial segragation are extreme, the governor’s vision seems to confirm the notion that the state is still more interested in continuing to extract gaming revenue from Atlantic City than in curing its myriad urban ills. The rush to reopen gaming complexes shuttered by the hurricane, costing an estimated $5 million in lost revenue a day, is a grim reminder that both the state and city are still dependent on Atlantic City’s sole “industry.”

Langford, a former casino pit boss, has brought little in the way of new vision to an office better known for high-profile corruption scandals than true leadership. His continuing discord with Christie seems to guarantee that the state will steamroll forward with plans that ignore the fundamental interests of the larger city. Although the tourism district plan calls for improved streetscaping on certain avenues in order to make the city itself more appealing to non-gamblers, the centerpiece is still the city’s string of massive casinos.

Christie recently reaffirmed the state’s commitment to propping up the gaming trade by breaking off $261.4 million in tax incentives for Revel, the city’s newest multi-billion dollar casino, which has been on financial life support since its opening in May. The newcomer is not alone in its struggles, as the city as whole has seen gambling profits shrink as other states have opened competing casinos.

With Philadelphia eying locations for a second casino, this trend does not seem to be slowing down. As Atlantic City’s future as a growing casino destination is increasingly called into question, spending state and local tax revenue on supporting a single, shrinking industry seems riskier by the day.

Neither the Mayor’s Office nor the Governor’s Office responded to inquires as of press time.

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Ryan Briggs is an investigative reporter based in Philadelphia. He has contributed to the Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, the Philadelphia City Paper, Philadelphia Magazine and Hidden City.

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Tags: economic developmenthurricane sandynew jerseycasinoschris christieatlantic city

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