Chris Christie and Atlantic City: a Tale of Woe

In politics timing is as important as location is in real estate and business. If a politician catches a wave he/she might ride it all the way to Washington, D. C. On the other hand, if that same politician misses the wave it can result in a painful face plant into the sands of missed opportunities. A face full of sand has been about Chris Christie’s only reward in Atlantic City. When Hurricane Sandy hit the Atlantic coastline four years ago, Atlantic City’s 12 casinos stood in its path. Sandy impacted many cities, but Atlantic City gathered more than its share of the news headlines due to the heroics of New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie. Governor Christie was seen by the nation wading knee deep in water, taking command and easing people’s anxieties. It was a grand moment, a great wave if you will pardon the pun. If a presidential election had been held in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie might be our president today. But alas there was no election and the memory of his noble deeds slipped quickly from people’s minds.

For Atlantic City and its struggling casinos, Christie’s tenure has been one of grand gestures, if not grand results. When he took office in 2010, the $2 billion Revel project was stalled mid-stream. Its primary banker had opted out, leaving a partially built structure with no money to continue. It was an ugly mark on the city’s already tarnished reputation. Atlantic City was six years into a recession caused by casinos in Pennsylvania and no one was willing to fund what many considered a questionable project. Christie stepped in and managed to nudge the project back into motion; it opened just seven months before Sandy brought the governor to national attention.

Christie touted Revel as the savior of Atlantic City. He said it was exactly what the city needed to bring it back to its days of glory. To help the process along, Christie engineered regulatory changes intended to make operating a casino less expensive. He made some important and necessary changes, but for the most part his effort came five years too late. Revel and the regulatory changes did not save the city or its casinos. Unfortunately for Christie, the city and everyone with a stake in Revel, it went into bankruptcy immediately and closed a little more than two years after it opened and remains closed. Glenn Straub is promising to reopen it in the spring of 2017. But that might be more hype than fact as the state’s gaming authorities say they have not even started the process of vetting Straub and his team.

Christie thought he was giving Atlantic City a gift with Revel, but it has not turned out quite as he thought.  Now it serves as a constant reminder of his judgment and adds to his now damaged reputation. He no longer mentions Revel in his speeches; he is on a new track to bring Atlantic City back to glory. His administration is taking over the government of Atlantic City. In the opinion of Christie’s administration, the city’s officials are incapable of fixing the city’s problems. But Christie apparently thinks the state can save the day. That is a tall order as Atlantic City is suffering from Pennsylvania-itis, the same disease that closed Revel and four other casinos since 2015. The city and the casinos have shared the same fate for the last forty years. The city was flush when the casinos were raking in the dough and it is now impoverished as casinos are now dying off one-by-one. The city officials have tried to readjust; during the recession they did what most cities in the country did to restructure, but it was not enough. It was not enough because the casinos continue their downward spiral. Atlantic City is in its tenth year of suffering from Pennsylvania-itis.

However, Chris Christie is trying to usher in a new era. He and his army of saviors are marching in to solve all of the city’s problems. A former U. S. Senator and state attorney general, Jeffrey Chiesa has been given the command. In my mind it is rather like a military government in a defeated country. The planes drop bombs, the artillery levels buildings, the tanks and the foot soldiers follow mopping up. But the army has to move on to new objectives, so an officer is put in charge to maintain control, collect taxes and make certain the enemy does not sneak back under the cover of dark. Christie’s “man-charge” has a slightly different mission; he is tasked with cutting expenses to match revenue. That is quite a challenge as revenue slide has not bottomed out, nor does the bottom seem close.

It is a new era for Atlantic City and its relationship with Chris Christie. In the time of the hurricane, he was the savior of Atlantic City and a potential president. Now he is the supreme commander of an occupying army. Even worse, he endorsed the referendum to add two more casinos in the state outside of Atlantic City; it was a move that had it been successful would surely have been the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back. Today Christie has few friends on the Boardwalk; in fact, he seems to have few friends in his own political party. Christie is quickly becoming a has-been; he is no longer a candidate for president, vice president or cabinet office. He even lost his job leading the transition team. I wonder if he sits up at night dreaming of what might have been, if only the election had been four years ago.

In a year Christie will not be governor of New Jersey as he has reached the term limit. One of the people vying to replace him is promising to unwind the occupation and find another path to save Atlantic City. But by the time voters in New Jersey choose a new governor, conditions will have changed even more. There will be at least three more casinos in the region eating at the edge of Atlantic City. It is all a matter of timing isn’t it? If there was ever hope to preserve Atlantic City’s exalted second place in the casino-resort world, that time has passed. In his exit, Christie simply joins a long line of people who missed the danger signs and waited too long before taking action. But given the dynamic expansion gaming has experienced in the last twenty years, maybe there never was an opportunity to preserve the Atlantic City of the 1980’s. Give Christie his due, he did try.


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