As anyone who has read this column with any kind of regularity knows, I got my start in the industry during the early days of Atlantic City gaming. In many ways, although I no longer live in the city full time, my heart remains there. So last month’s devastating impact from Hurricane Sandy caused me much consternation.
With family and friends in harm’s way, I could only look on from a distance and pray the storm would peter out, like most other storms have done over my 30-plus years in Atlantic City. But this one lived up to its billing, unfortunately. Although the winds weren’t as bad as they could have been, the combination of historic storm surge, lunar high tides and the timing of the landfall brought a mountain of water over the Jersey Shore for two high-tide cycles, inundating the lower-lying areas of Atlantic City.
But as bad as the pictures looked in Atlantic City, the damage isn’t as dramatic as it was in the North Jersey towns of Seaside Heights, Mantaloking or the New York regions of Staten Island and Breezy Point, where the destruction was eerily reminiscent of the previous biggest storm in my lifetime, Katrina.
And the comparison between the two storms is not taken lightly. I spent many years in Mississippi prior to Katrina, developing business and relationships with casino executives, many of whom got their start in Atlantic City. The damage caused by Katrina was devastating to both the community and the casino industry on the Gulf Coast. The destruction to the casinos by Katrina was much more extensive than what we’ve seen in Atlantic City with Sandy. But the reaction to the devastation can be similar.
In Mississippi, the barges that housed the casinos were destroyed. Several of these massive structures were deposited in the middle of Highway 90 that runs along the Gulf Coast, and had to be disassembled to be removed. An entirely new regulatory system had to be designed to reopen the casinos, which took more than six months.
But when they did reopen, casinos were the catalyst that got the region back on its feet. Employees returned to work, visitors came back, and businesses that depended on the casinos and visitors reopened. Today, the casinos remain the engine that drives the Gulf Coast.
The same thing can happen in Atlantic City, but in a shorter time frame. In an odd way, the destruction on the Gulf Coast became kind of a tourist attraction. People wanted to see what Katrina had wrought, while at the same time, they wanted to support the people of the Gulf Coast by returning as visitors. The same can happen in Atlantic City.
While there certainly are parallels, New Jersey can never be prepared for this kind of storm. The Gulf Coast is constantly battered by hurricanes, so Katrina, as intense as it was, was not an anomaly. I have studied how the Gulf Coast has rebounded, and Atlantic City can learn from Mississippi in its response to Sandy. After Katrina hit, it completely wiped out every structure from the gulf back two blocks. Nothing remained standing. Luckily, Atlantic City didn’t suffer that kind of destruction.
But like Mississippi, the casino industry can be the catalyst for the Atlantic City rebound. With millions in marketing dollars still available, the Atlantic City Alliance, a cooperative organization set up this year by the city’s casinos, can build a clever marketing campaign that will at once emphasize that the amenities found at the Atlantic City casinos were not destroyed or even damaged, while playing on the sympathy that people naturally feel for storm-damaged areas and their residents. “Do AC” can have a variety of meanings.
People will want to come back to Atlantic City to see how it fared, to enjoy themselves, and to feel better because they are assisting in the recovery of the region. Atlantic City can also become the overnight getaway for those impacted by the storm who want to escape reality for a night or two and get away from their troubles.
We saw that happen the first days gaming halls reopened following the storm. And for visitors coming to Atlantic City for the first time or returning after a long absence, Atlantic City can demonstrate its unique ability to entertain, delight and surprise.
It’s a delicate balance, but the professionals who market Atlantic City can surely walk that line. Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves; let’s make a difference and rebuild Atlantic City to what it can be and what it must be.