EDITORS NOTE: This story original ran on June 26, 2016 and is being reposted today because of the anniversary of the Atlantic City Connector opening.
ATLANTIC CITY — Every time Laura Williams leaves her Erie Avenue home in the Monroe Park section of the city, she can’t help but think about how much the neighborhood has changed over the years.
The small community was forever altered 16 years ago when state transportation officials determined some of the homes there were needed for the $300 million Atlantic City Expressway Connector project. The decision forced some residents to flee the area.
On July 27, 2001, local and state officials stood at the entrance of the connector touting how it would transform the region.
“We know the casinos have more power than the people. When people started to lose their homes, that really upset me,” Williams said with sadness in her voice. “I know it was supposed to be in the name of progress, but I miss those people who aren’t here anymore.”
Over the years, proponents of the project have said its impact can be felt all over the city from the development of casinos in the Marina District to improved traffic flow, while detractors contend the connector has forever changed neighborhoods like Monroe Park and had a negative impact on the casinos on the Boardwalk.
When the connector opened, there were eight casinos on the Boardwalk. Now, there are four, said Anthony Marino, an independent transportation analyst and former expressway executive.
“The three casinos in the Marina District are much easier to access by employee and patron vehicle in the last 15 years,” Marino said in June 2016. “The success of the Marina District, in part stimulated by the connector’s ease of access, is no doubt a factor in the difficulties experienced by Boardwalk casinos.”
Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Harrah’s Resort, both accessible from the connector, are the top two casinos in Atlantic City when it comes to gross revenue, according to the latest state records. The three casinos in the Marina District have an average gross revenue of $133.6 million compared with $70 million for the five Boardwalk casinos, according to state records. Borgata leads the region with $220.4 million in gross revenue.
“The impact of the project is undeniable,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, who was Atlantic City’s mayor from 1990 to 2001. “The short answer is it brought Borgata to the city, but it also improved traffic flow around the city and improved access to Brigantine.”
The connector is more than 2 miles long, linking central Atlantic City with the uptown casinos and Brigantine. The four-lane road serves about 24,000 cars a year, according to the state Department of Transportation.
A connector road between the expressway and the Marina District was first proposed in 1964 by the city Planning Board. The project was then called the Route 30 Connector and was to connect the end of the expressway with Absecon Boulevard.
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Due to a lack of funds and environmental concerns about construction near adjacent wetlands, the connector project remained dormant until 1996, when Steve Wynn and the Mirage Group purchased the formerly city-owned H-Tract, the site of the former city landfill off Huron Avenue, and wanted to build three or four casinos there.
“I think that it changed the city and divided it in a way,” said James Karmel, professor of history at Harford Community College in Bel Air, Maryland, and author of “Gambling on The American Dream: Atlantic City and the Casino Era.” “Back then, Atlantic City was thriving and people were looking to come in. This project showed that. With what is going on today, this project probably would not get off the ground.”
The project was not without its opponents, chief among them then-casino mogul Donald Trump.
“It split the city and caused the breakup of the Casino Association of New Jersey. There was a group that sided with Trump and was a group that sided with Wynn,” Karmel said. “There were a lot of people who fought the project outside of the casino industry. There were some residents who fought the project and held out and got more than double the value of their property.”
Nine homes on Horace J. Bryant Jr. Drive were razed to make way for the tunnel. The property owners received $200,000 each.
In 2000, Trump said the project would “bleed the Boardwalk (casinos) dry.” The comments foreshadowed a shift in the city’s casino industry. For decades, the Boardwalk was the mecca of gaming in the city, but with the opening of Borgata in 2003, the balance of power shifted to the Marina District.
The opening of Borgata forced casinos, located on the Boardwalk, to reexamine their business models, Whelan said.
“It forced the other properties to step up their game,” he said. “It forced the Tropicana to do The Quarter to try to stay competitive against Borgata. Despite the tax battle, where would the city be without Borgata?”
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Steve Callender, general manager of Tropicana Atlantic City, said the connector spurred a change in the city’s casino industry.
“Atlantic City needed to improve and needed to diversify,” Callender said. “It’s something that we have done at Tropicana, not everyone wants to be gaming all of the time. The timing was right for it. We are a little behind Las Vegas in transforming our business model over to nongaming amenities.”