ATLANTIC CITY — The introduction of casinos to the resort four decades ago has been both a blessing and a curse for businesses such as One Stop Bait & Tackle on Atlantic Avenue.

Noel Feliciano, who has run One Stop for 25 years, knows some of his customers are drawn to the town by the casinos, including a man who was staying at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa for a few days this month. The customer wanted to get in some fishing during his trip, looked up local bait shops and found One Stop.

“The casinos have helped us a lot, don’t get me wrong. That’s in our DNA, and you can’t take that away now. But we should be a shore resort, first and foremost,” Feliciano said. “They let the casinos run this joint, and that’s why we’re in the predicament we’re in now. ... The economy is built on small business. America is built on small business. But here, everything is big.”

Nov. 2 marks the 40th anniversary of the vote that brought casinos to Atlantic City. On Nov. 8, the state will ask voters to again approve casino gaming, this time in North Jersey.

Casino gaming has been a mixed bag for local businesses. At first, it provided an injection of new people — and customers — to the area. But casinos quickly became self-contained entertainment complexes and eventually evolved into resorts, featuring restaurants, shops and clubs, isolating visitors from the rest of the city.

Before casinos took over the Boardwalk and became the focal point of the city’s economy, Atlantic Avenue was the place to be. Restaurants, night spots such as the 500 Club and mom-and-pop stores once lined the iconic road. Now, the street is a shell of its former self. Restaurants have been replaced by convenience stories, while some storefronts have been shuttered for years.

This was something state lawmakers hadn’t counted on.

“When they brought casinos in, I don’t think that they ever envisioned that they would be all-encompassing, that they would be closed off to the city — and to the ocean for that matter,” said Mayor Don Guardian, adding some of the businesses that made the city unique closed following the introduction of casino gaming.

Casinos, by design, are meant to keep people isolated from the rest of the community, said Bryant Simon, a historian and author of “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.” Gaming floors are designed with no clocks and, similarly, little natural light to give gamblers a sense of passing time.

“There was an Italian restaurant on Pacific Avenue near Resorts that spent the weeks before the opening of Resorts cooking in anticipation of the people that would come, thinking that they were going to get rich,” Simon said. “There are lines waiting to get into the casinos, they are peeing in cups. Then on Monday as everyone is leaving they are throwing out the food. Casinos make it hard to find the Boardwalk, let alone Pacific Avenue or Atlantic City.”

At the height of the casino industry, more than 14 million people came to the resort on bus trips, leaving them little time to explore the city and its businesses, said Steve Norton, a former Atlantic City casino executive who now runs a consulting company, {span}Norton Management LLC.{/span}

“Considering that the majority of our visitors were there for just the day, it was unlikely that they would spend any time or money in downtown Atlantic City,” Norton said. “Some would shop on the Boardwalk. But at one time 14-plus million visitors came by line-run bus, about 40 percent of our total arrivals, and were in town for only six hours.”

Follow the transformation of Trump Taj Mahal into Hard Rock Atlantic City

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Before casino gaming, the city was flush with food-and-drink establishments. But by 1996, that number had been cut by more than 40 percent, according to a report from New Jersey Policy Perspective. There were 242 food-and-drink establishments in the city before casinos arrived. By 1996, just 142 were left, according to the report.

“There were problems with local restaurant closings. But much of that was due to the state not allowing casino employees to park in the city, their most likely customer,” Norton said. “We had to pick them up at intercept lots on Mainland Atlantic County, which spurred even more new restaurants and retail establishments opening in the county, with the substantial jump in employment.”

Phil Weinberg, who runs Mel’s Furniture on Atlantic Avenue with his brother Ron, said the approval of gaming gave local businesses a huge early boost, but that has since worn off. Mel’s has been part of the Atlantic City landscape for more than 60 years, long enough that a street in its Inlet neighborhood is named for the store’s founder, the late Melvin Weinberg.

{span}“I don’t know what would’ve happened if there were no casinos here,” Phil Weinberg said, standing outside the store where he’s worked since 1980. “When casinos first passed, we got a big boost. There was an influx of people, and they brought a lot of business to the city. You’d ask people where they were from, and the answer was always ‘Vegas, Vegas, Vegas.’”{/span}

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Contact: 609-272-7046 nhuba@pressofac.com

Twitter @acpresshuba

Started working in newsrooms when I was 17 years old. Spent 15 years working for Gannett New Jersey before coming to The Press of Atlantic City in April 2015.

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