As a professional musician, Alisa Cooper has played gigs in every casino in town, except at the newly opened Revel megaresort.
On Wednesday, she began a different type of casino gig — as a board member of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, the state agency that issues casino licenses.
During her swearing-in ceremony, Cooper stressed her longtime ties to Atlantic City and pledged to help revitalize the resort’s struggling economy. She made no secret of her passion for Atlantic City.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I was born and raised in Atlantic City, and, boy, do I love this town,” Cooper told the audience at the Casino Control Commission.
Cooper, 60, who now lives in Linwood, recalled growing up at Stenton and Pacific avenues in Atlantic City in the 1950s, including the nightly walks she would take with her parents on the beaches and Boardwalk.
One of the Boardwalk landmarks that fascinated her as a child was the historic Arcade Building, which now serves as the office complex for the Casino Control Commission.
“Here it is, Aug. 1, 2012, and I am being sworn in at the same building that I admired as a child in the 1950s,” she said.
Although she spoke fondly of childhood memories, Cooper turned more serious while addressing the current difficulties of Atlantic City and its dominant industry, the casinos. Cooper said she realizes that a thriving casino industry is crucial for the economic vitality of Atlantic City, Atlantic County and the entire state.
Hammered by the fragile economy and competition from casinos in surrounding states, Atlantic City’s gambling revenue has plunged from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006 to $3.3 billion in 2011. Revenue is down nearly 7 percent through the first six months of 2012, all but ensuring a sixth consecutive year of declines.
Cooper noted how her now-deceased parents would talk about the importance of casinos to the local economy. Her mother, Dolores Cooper, served as a state Assemblywoman and Atlantic County freeholder. Her father, David Cooper, was a dentist. Her parents were among the early supporters of efforts to legalize casinos, Cooper said.
A Democrat, Cooper followed her mother into politics. She served as an Atlantic County freeholder from 2005 to 2011. She ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly last year. Throughout her political life, she continued with her longtime music career. She is a pianist and the owner of Alisa Cooper Orchestras. She has also taught music, most recently in the Egg Harbor Township School District.
Her casino performances go all the way back to opening day at Resorts Casino Hotel on May 26, 1978, when she played in the Rendezvous Lounge of Atlantic City’s first casino.
“I heard the very first jingle of the slot machines,” she recalled of Resorts’ grand opening.
Cooper said her experience as a freeholder will be invaluable as she transitions to being a casino commissioner. She said she will be as tough as necessary as a casino regulator, but will also use her platform on the commission to advocate on Atlantic City’s behalf.
“It will be 50-50. There has to be a good combination, a balance. You want to be tough, but there’s the other side, too. But you don’t want to be too easy-going, because things can get by you,” Cooper said in an interview after her swearing in.
Gov. Chris Christie nominated Cooper for a commission seat in June, along with former Linwood Councilman Matthew B. Levinson, a Republican. Levinson, the son of Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, is scheduled to be sworn in as the commission’s new chairman on Monday. Cooper will earn $125,000 annually, while Levinson will be paid $141,000 as chairman. They join Vice Chairwoman Sharon Anne Harrington on the commission’s three-member board.
The commission was once the state’s primary casino regulatory agency. However, Christie and the Legislature stripped the commission of much of its power last year as part of a sweeping overhaul of the casino regulations.
Another government agency, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, now serves as the casino industry’s main regulatory body. The commission’s principal duty is to award casino licenses.