Gerald Alexander, a casino diehard from Washington, D.C., was one of the last customers to leave Golden Nugget Atlantic City the day before Hurricane Sandy struck.
On Friday, he was one of the first gamblers to return when Golden Nugget reopened its doors at 11:30 a.m., ending Atlantic City’s historic five-day casino shutdown.
“The Golden Nugget called me to say they would officially open at 11:30. So here I am,” Alexander said while playing a penny slot machine amid rows of empty seats around him.
Alexander and other gamblers, who trickled back into a city still recovering from the hurricane’s fury, found the casinos ghostly quiet for the most part. Casino executives acknowledged that it likely will take a long time before the $3.3 billion gambling industry returns to normal.
“Gaming is going to be the last thing on people’s minds for weeks to come,” said Tom Pohlman, Golden Nugget’s general manager.
However, Pohlman stressed that it was imperative for the city’s dominant industry to welcome back customers and get its 36,000 employees back to work to help revive the local economy.
“We’ve got people who were displaced and had nothing to eat. They had nowhere to charge their cellphones. So this is about providing a service for our customers,” he said. “This also allows our employees to start earning a paycheck again.”
Golden Nugget was the first casino to open after Gov. Chris Christie lifted a mandatory evacuation order that had closed down the city and the casinos starting Sunday afternoon. Golden Nugget resumed gambling operations only 90 minutes after the governor gave the go-ahead. Other casinos gradually came online later in the day after scrambling to call in enough employees.
All but two of the 12 casinos were back in business Friday. Revel, Atlantic City’s newest casino, plans to reopen at noon today, and the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel announced it would resume casino and hotel operations at 10 a.m. Monday.
This was only the fourth shutdown in Atlantic City’s 34-year history of casino gambling. Hurricane Gloria in 1985, Hurricane Irene in 2011 and a state budget crisis in 2006 also forced the casinos to temporarily close. However, this was the first time a shutdown dragged on longer than three days.
The shutdown has only added to Atlantic City’s misery. The gambling haven already is mired in a six-year revenue slump caused by the sluggish economy and competition from casinos in neighboring states. Casino executives estimate the industry collectively lost about $5 million in gambling revenue each day during the shutdown.
Business is expected to be relatively light this weekend, but a more serious concern is the long-term financial hit for the ailing industry. Andrew Zarnett, a casino analyst for Deutsche Bank, thinks this time around will be even worse than the three-day shutdown caused by Hurricane Irene in August 2011.
“We believe this hurricane is especially bad timing for Atlantic City, given the city has been struggling with the negative impact of additional supply in the Northeast,” Zarnett said, referring to new casinos in Atlantic City, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Zarnett said still-flooded roads and a strained transportation system will make it difficult for customers to travel to Atlantic City, cutting into casino visitation through mid-November. He also noted that storm-ravaged homeowners will be far more concerned about repairing their properties than making casino trips. A final challenge will be for casinos to drum up business during the hectic holiday shopping season in December, he said.
Don Marrandino, president of the Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s Resort and Showboat casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp., said the industry is counting on pent-up demand as a catalyst for new business.
“We need to get our communities up on their feet, and there’s no better way to do this than to get our employees back to work and allow our visitors to once again enjoy the famed Boardwalk,” Marrandino said. “We encourage everyone who has cabin fever following the storm to come down to the shore.”
Showboat guests Scott and Mary Fielding, of Harrisburg, Pa., had made reservations for a Friday night stay well before the storm struck. They joked about their good timing, arriving the first day the casino was open again.
“We got lucky here. I hope it continues on the casino floor,” Scott Fielding said as his wife laughed.
The Fieldings called Friday morning to confirm their reservation, but were told there were no guarantees the hotel would be opened. They came anyway.
“We’re the beginning of the crowds coming back,” Scott Fielding said.
Alexander, the Golden Nugget customer, said he was determined to get to Atlantic City on Friday morning. He started his trip at 5 a.m. from Newark, where he had stayed with friends during the storm.
“I’m retired. I don’t have a lot of other things to do. This is my outlet,” the 73-year-old Alexander explained of his determination to make it to Golden Nugget.
Friends Beverly Humphrey, of New York, and Lori Davis, of Newark, joined Alexander on the trip. The three were gambling on the slot machines early Friday afternoon in an otherwise eerily quiet casino.
Other casinos around town had sparse crowds shortly after they reopened. Tony Soto, an Atlantic City resident, strolled onto the nearly empty gambling floor at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort at 4 p.m.
“I’m the first one here. Do I get the booby prize?” Soto joked.
Soto, whose Ocean Avenue home remains without electricity in the storm’s aftermath, said he was more interested in warming up in the Taj’s heated building than gambling. Still, he sat down at a 5-cent slot machine and had won $5 within his first few minutes of play.
Next door at Resorts Casino Hotel, Atlantic City residents Stephanie Band and Otto Lomberk had the gambling floor virtually to themselves. Band and Lomberk, who are engaged, said they were mainly seeking heat and shelter at Resorts because their Ocean Avenue home was without power.
“Considering that I’m an Atlantic City resident, it is weird seeing the casino so empty,” Lomberk said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
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