Atlantic City Lures Gamblers With Train Service

Casino revenues in Atlantic City are down. Visitors are defecting to new gambling halls in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York. Some Atlantic City hotels have teamed up to start a new luxury express train from New York City.

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They used to say that the gambling industry was recession-proof. Not anymore. Casino revenues have plunged, especially in Atlantic City, which wasn't doing all that well before the economic meltdown. Still, casinos like to think big. And in these dire times some Atlantic City hotels have teamed up to start a new luxury express train from New York City. NPR's Robert Smith hopped onboard to see if it's bringing back the high rollers.

ROBERT SMITH: On the train platform at Penn Station in New York, it's easy to spot the fellows with the fat bankrolls. In fact, there's the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, no doubt ready for a little…

Governor JON CORZINE (Democrat, New Jersey): …gambling, singers, dancers, comedians - the whole works.

SMITH: Okay, the rich guy happens to be New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, who's here to cut the ribbon for the inaugural run of the casino express train. He's worried, though, that not many people have extra money to gamble these days.

Gov. CORZINE: It's discretionary spending, so, you know, it's one of the things that people can cut from their budgets pretty quickly. So it's a tough time for it.

SMITH: And a tough time for New Jersey, which takes an 8 percent cut of the gambling revenues. Everyone here is hoping the train will transport people back to the good old and the rich old days.

Unidentified Woman: All aboard the first ACES train to Atlantic City.

SMITH: Inside, there are leather seats, a full bar, cocktail servers and a private lounge. In fact, it's hard to believe there's an economic downturn. Michael Walsh, a vice president from Harrah's Resort, says that's the point.

Mr. MICHAEL WALSH (Vice President, Harrah's Resort): The message we are trying to send to our guests in New York is that, hey, we're available. This is easy, and we want your holiday mentality to start as soon as you board at Penn Station in New York City.

SMITH: And they want you to forget those less-than-glamorous stereotypes of Atlantic City: the crowded charter buses hauling in slot machine jockeys, the aging casinos with the low ceilings and a haze of smoke. The $20 million train project was funded by three casinos - Harrah's, Caesars and the Borgata - with the hopes of luring a whole new crowd to Atlantic City.

Ms. AUDRA ASHLEY(ph): I like it.

Mr. DONNY GARRET(ph)(Medical Student): Yeah. It's really nice.

Ms. ASHLEY: It smells like leather, clean.

SMITH: This is a first-time gambling trip for Donny Garret, a medical student, and his girlfriend, Audra Ashley. They're not exactly high rollers, but they're willing to fake it.

Ms. ASHLEY: You save and you take what money you put back and have fun with it.

Mr. GARRET: And pretend the recession doesn't exist.

Ms. ASHLEY: I guess a little so. I mean, not so much as to, you know, I wouldn't be able to do 500 or $1,000 gambling. But, you know, a little that I put back. Yeah.

SMITH: Ashley clearly isn't the only gambler who has set herself a limit. Revenues at the casinos in Atlantic City were down more than 7 percent last year. Customers are defecting to new gambling halls in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New York. Almost all the casinos have laid off people. Kristen Hawk(ph), a cocktail server on the train, lost her job at a restaurant last fall.

Ms. KRISTEN HAWK (Cocktail Server): In the area, it's been very difficult for everyone to find work, a lot of layoffs and lot of people looking in a lot the same places. So I'm very lucky to find what I did.

SMITH: Also lucky are the few dozen gamblers on board. They're ready to take advantage of the casinos' desperation. George Slosser(ph) is a poker player headed for the Borgata.

Mr. GEORGE SLOSSER: Oh, yeah. I never used to be able to get free rooms on a weekend. It's easy to get a free room on a weekend now. They're definitely hurting.

SMITH: As we pull into Atlantic City, Slosser points out the skyline of Casino Towers - each one a reminder of the industry's pain.

Mr. SLOSSER: There's the Hilton.

SMITH: Which had its revenue drop 18 percent last year.

Mr. SLOSSER: Next to the Hilton, it's the Tropicana.

SMITH: Which is being run by a state trustee and is headed to a bankruptcy auction.

Mr. SLOSSER: Next to the Tropicana is what used to be the Atlantis, but there's nothing there anymore. It was torn down about three or four years ago.

SMITH: And it's not the only empty space on the skyline. Several planned casinos in the city have been cancelled or put on hold till better times.

Mr. SLOSSER: After that, you'll see the Trump Plaza complex.

SMITH: Donald Trump is behind in his debt payments, and his three casinos may have to seek bankruptcy protection. Here's the scary thing: We're just looking out one side of the train.

Unidentified Woman: Atlantic City, final stop. Please watch your step when leaving the train. Atlantic City.

SMITH: Enough talk about losing money. Slosser and the other gamblers head off the train with dreams of fortune. I take a walk over to Bally's casino. For the gambler, there's an upside to the downturn: plenty of room at the blackjack table, the cocktail waitress stops by often. Even on a Friday night, it's easy to get dinner or show reservations. Over by the slot machine, Angelo Jones has his run of the place.

Mr. ANGELO JONES: You just get to relax, more room to move around, and all the machines you get to have to yourself. I already won a few hundred bucks, so I'm good. Now I'm going to go spend it, try to get some food and drinks for my buddies here, and spend it again.

SMITH: That's what we call economic stimulus.

Mr. JONES: That's right. If it stimulates me, I'm happy. It's all good.

SMITH: And should some of these casinos be out of business the next time he drives down from Northern New Jersey, Jones says it's their bad luck, not his.

Robert Smith, NPR news.

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