- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.

Before the first casino ever opened, Atlantic City had a guiding principle: to be unlike Las Vegas. Talk about tough luck — it has been eating the dust of its bigger, older cousin in the desert ever since.

From casino games to megaresorts, from sports betting to headliners, Las Vegas sets the trends and Atlantic City follows them. The casino capitals are joined by one common bond but separated by 2,550 miles, two vastly different settings and the Strip’s 47-year head start.

For people here, the latest reminder of Las Vegas’ status as the casino world’s bigger, glitzier destination came in January, when Miss America packed up her sash, turned her back on the Boardwalk and high-heeled it out to the Strip.

It was a crowning slight for a place that is well used to them.

“Miss America: Leaving us? Fine. But for Vegas?” read one headline, in New Jersey Monthly magazine.

To be sure, the scale of the two cities is different because of Las Vegas’ early start as a gambling mecca and its sprawling size.

Casinos were legalized in Nevada in 1931, and they quickly turned the Mojave Desert oasis into a booming resort destination. Today, the Strip alone has 43 casinos — more than three times as many as Atlantic City — not counting dozens of others downtown.

Atlantic City, by contrast, is a narrow, 48-block strip of land surrounded by water on three sides. The first of its dozen casinos here opened in 1978, their mandate to revitalize a crumbling city by the sea.

Leery of Las Vegas’ reputation as a haven for mob-controlled casinos, New Jersey required background checks on casino hotel employees, conducted financial investigations into companies applying for licenses and kept close tabs on their backers.

From the start, it was Las Vegas money pouring into Atlantic City, with established casino companies such as Caesars, Bally’s and Tropicana getting in on the game. The idea was to turn shabby Atlantic City into elegant Monte Carlo, not anything-goes Las Vegas.

“In those early days, one of the worst things a casino executive could do was show up at a Casino Control Commission meeting and say, ‘That’s not the way we do it in Las Vegas,’” said Daniel Heneghan, a former casino industry reporter who is now spokesman for the agency.

But Atlantic City was leaning on Las Vegas, too.

For one thing, that was where the skilled labor was. New Jersey’s casinos hired dealers, chambermaids and valet parkers locally, but the executive ranks and pit boss jobs were filled by Las Vegas veterans who came East.

“When Atlantic City first came on, there was this huge panic in Vegas, that we were going to be surpassed by Atlantic City in a few years, which would have been true if Atlantic City had played its cards right,” said Roger Gros, editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. “But the race is pretty much over, and Las Vegas has won.”

Atlantic City’s first casinos were modeled after Las Vegas’. Some were built from the ground up; others were old oceanfront hotels retrofitted to handle slot machines, buffet restaurants and a steady stream of incoming buses.

“The mistake that was made in the ‘70s and early ‘80s was that they took the ideas from the Vegas Strip and jammed them down Atlantic City’s throat,” said David Schwartz, an Atlantic City native who is now director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.

“It’s been successful, but to get to the next level, to real excellence, you need casinos that take more advantage of the boardwalk and the beach and the marina.”

In recent years, that has been happening. Several casinos have opened beach bars and cabana rental operations during the three-month summer season. Under construction across the Boardwalk from Caesars Atlantic City Hotel Casino is the Shops at Caesars, a 90-store, $175 million retail development on a former pier.

Its inspiration? The Forum Shops, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Atlantic City has followed suit in other ways.

Envious of Las Vegas’ round-the-clock action, Atlantic City casinos in 1992 won the right to stay open 24 hours a day. Now, the city’s official slogan is “Always Turned On.”

Atlantic City also has tried, unsuccessfully, to get sports betting, a $2-billion-a-year business in Las Vegas, where casinos post point spreads and gamblers can bet on college and professional sports legally.

To gamblers, there is a world of difference between the desert oasis and its Johnny-come-lately relative back East. For many, Atlantic City’s location — it’s within a day’s drive of one-third of the U.S. population — and its place on the ocean make it an appealing destination for a day trip or weekend visit.

Las Vegas, by comparison, begs longer stays because of its remote location, warm weather and dizzying array of themed megaresorts such as the Venetian, Paris and New York New York. In Las Vegas, the average visitor stays 3 nights and 4 days, compared with 13 hours in Atlantic City.

“If a player’s been coming to Atlantic City for years and goes to Las Vegas, he’s like, ‘Oh, my God, this is like Mecca,’” said Dennis Gomes, a former casino executive and casino industry regulator, who has worked in both places. “That’s Las Vegas and it’s always going to be. Atlantic City’s just hasn’t finished its evolution.”

Gamblers like Atlantic City’s proximity but prize Las Vegas’ variety — and volume.

“Vegas is like the Super Bowl,” said Shane Banks, 29, of New Castle, Del., who has gambled in Atlantic City casinos but was more impressed with Las Vegas during a recent trip. “Atlantic City is a high school game.”

Even New Jerseyans prefer playing in Vegas. In a Stockton-Zogby poll last year, those surveyed said they preferred Nevada casinos over Atlantic City’s, by more than 2-to-1.

“We need to stop saying we’re going to become like Las Vegas, because we’re not,” said Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority. “We don’t have the weather, we don’t have the air service, we don’t have the physical space to accommodate 130,000 hotel rooms. Vegas is just on a different scale.”

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