Atlantic City bets on golf, luxury to attract new generation of vacationers
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - Atlantic City is undergoing a makeover.
The changing landscape of legalized gaming is forcing the legendary New Jersey resort to diversify. Golf courses, shopping and dining are all part of a transformation local officials hope will position Atlantic City to better compete with the expanding plethora of gambling destinations.
A quarter-century or so ago, when Atlantic City's casinos were just opening their doors, the closest (legit) competition was a world away in the Nevada desert. But these days East Coast gamers have multiple alternatives to a trek west.
Suddenly gambling is not enough.
"Much as Las Vegas has become more than just a gambling destination,
Atlantic City has to take a similar path," American Gaming Association President Frank Fahrenkopf says. "If you're not moving forward, you're falling behind. The opening of the Borgata casino a couple of years ago was the first step and now there is momentum in that direction."
The Borgata is the closest thing A.C. has to a Vegas-style hotel. It's upscale and draws a younger crowd. Since the Borgata opened for business, Harrah's and the Tropicana have renovated and expanded.
For years the cornerstone of the local gambling trade has been day-tripping seniors from Philadelphia and New York, who come in busloads in what the locals unkindly call the "Blue Hair Express."
"God bless them," Teddie O'Keefe of prominent local marketing firm Smith O'Keefe says of the older visitors. "But we've got to start attracting younger people, who will stay for longer periods of time. We've started to focus on that, and that's how the transformation will come about."
Harry Bittner, general manager at Shore Gate Golf Club and president of the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association, believes golf can contribute to elevating the destination.
"The fact that we've developed a first-class golf destination means tourists who don't have any interest in gambling can still come to the area," Bittner says. "A group of golfers can come in for four or five days, play some outstanding courses and sample the casino nightlife as often or as little as they want."
"It's only been within the past 10 years that the region has evolved into a golf destination," says Thom Pierre of Margate, an avid local player. "Golfers are still surprised what is available here. Everyone knows about the casinos, but there is more than just gambling around here."
"I don't see it as an either/or thing," says Kevin McCarty, marketing head for the Renault Winery and Vineyard Golf Course in nearby Egg Harbor. "We don't need to ignore gambling, just do a better job of explaining that you can visit south Jersey and never step inside a casino if you don't want to."
The likes of Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay are launching new restaurants in and outside the casinos, and a new shopping pier along the boardwalk will offer top designer stores such as Tiffany and Louis Vuitton.
"The restaurants and the stores help change the dynamic of the town," O'Keefe explains. "Those are the kinds of things that will draw younger, upscale people."
The upscale component is also reflected in the golf options. "Atlantic City Country Club, Seaview, Twisted Dune, right here at Shore Gate and others are what some will call 'destination' courses," Bittner says. "You get this quality grouped together and that's great golf. Mix in the restaurants and the shopping with the gaming that's already there and you see whole scene expands."
Atlantic City has been down this road before. It was once the country's premiere ocean-side resort. From the late 19th century through the Depression huge hotels were built along the coast to accommodate vacationers from up and down the Eastern Seaboard. But after World War II the resort went into a long period of decline.
The state legislature moved to legalize casino gambling in the 1970s, ushering in a new era in the history of Atlantic City. Now there are those who feel the city has to turn another page, to up the glitz and glamour to bring a new generation to the party.
It may not be Vegas-on-the-beach yet, but there are a lot folks trying to up the voltage a little in old A.C.
September 15, 2006