ATLANTIC CITY — Steven Perskie thinks about the legacy of legalizing gambling here each time he sees the city’s skyline.

It’s been nearly four decades since Perskie, dubbed “the father of casino gaming,” wrote the law that allowed casinos in the struggling seaside city.

“The question I keep asking myself is a version of: What would Atlantic City have looked like in the last 40 years?” Perskie, 71, said Thursday. “What would Atlantic City look like today? What would the area look like today if we hadn’t done it or if we hadn’t succeeded?”

With the 40th anniversary of the Nov. 2, 1976, passage of the gambling referendum approaching, he isn’t the only one asking such questions.

On Nov. 8, the state will ask voters to again approve gaming, this time in North Jersey. The vote will come in the wake of five casino closings, 10,000 lost jobs and a city repeatedly near default following the opening of casinos in nearby states.

For a great part of the past four decades, Atlantic City casinos created thousands of jobs, millions in tax revenue and billions in capital investments while making Atlantic City an East Coast gambling mecca. Tourism in the city increased five-fold in the first decade. Neighboring communities, such as Egg Harbor and Galloway townships, saw enormous growth as people flocked to the region for work.

But critics say casinos didn’t fulfill all the promises. The gambling halls put small establishments out of business by offering dining, shopping and entertainment all in one building. Gaming tax revenue helped pay for Atlantic City housing and development, but the city still suffers from blighted areas and vacant properties, some right along the Boardwalk.

“It delivered a tremendous amount of jobs, a tremendous amount of revenue. In a lot of ways, a tremendous amount of excitement,” said Bryant Simon, a historian and author of “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.” “But I don’t think anybody in 1976 — that night on the Boardwalk it was bone-chillingly cold and people danced to celebrate — imagined what the city looks like now.”

For Perskie, a former state lawmaker and gaming regulator, gambling didn’t accomplish everything it could have. But he said the community wouldn’t have a “small fraction of the economic viability” it has had if the referendum hadn’t passed.

“The legacy is we put thousands of families in a much stronger economic position. We created a very viable industry,” Perskie said. “We created opportunities for people that wouldn’t have ever possibly been otherwise available.”

Indeed, the casinos offered good-paying jobs with benefits. Workers could afford to “buy a home, send away your kids to college and retire with dignity,” said Chuck Baker, a 57-year-old city resident, casino union member and former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort cook.

But in recent years, as competition increased, casinos told workers they couldn’t afford the labor contracts, Baker said. He blamed “hedge-fund operators” who took money out of the properties and sent it “to New York.”

“That meant more money for the properties,” he said. “They didn’t want to take care of the workers.”

The Taj Mahal closed Monday amid a labor strike over issues including health benefits and breaks.

The Casino Association of New Jersey said the industry has “more than held up its end of the bargain” through the billions it generated in tax revenue and economic impact.

“Perhaps it took five casino closures and the unfortunate loss of some of those economic benefits for many to fully understand the significant economic impact generated by our industry for not only the city and the state, but the regional economy as well,” a statement from the association said. “Even with the right-sizing of our industry, Atlantic City remains one of the largest casino markets in the country and one of the most significant economic engines in the Garden State.”

At its height, the casino industry employed more than 50,000 people, including a quarter of Atlantic City’s population. Gaming-tax revenue for the state peaked at $502 million in 2006, and the city’s ratable base topped off at $20 billion in 2008.

But after five casino closings in three years, the gambling halls now employ about 21,000 workers, annual state gaming revenue hovers around $200 million and the city’s ratable base is down to $6.6 billion. Casinos opening in neighboring states, a consolidation of casino companies and the 2008 national recession have diminished the city’s gambling market.

Good-paying jobs and tax dollars weren’t the only promises of the casino referendum. The Casino Control Act of 1977 was intended to spark the city’s tourism industry and spur urban redevelopment.

But casinos alone reaped the benefits of the subsequent tourism boom, according to a recent report from New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank. There were 242 food-and-drink establishments in the city before casinos arrived. By 1996, just 142 were left, according to the report.

Casinos have paid more than $4 billion in real estate taxes and funded $350 million in Atlantic City housing and development projects. But the NJPP report said the promise of the city’s urban renewal was largely ignored.

New Jersey created the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in 1984 and offered casinos two options: spend 1.25 percent of gross revenue on CRDA-issued bonds for urban and economic development, or pay a 2.5 percent tax to the state.

“Casinos chose the first option. But over time, the redevelopment mission was diluted by the Legislature, allowing CRDA to spend money on tourism-related activities that directly benefited the casinos,” the report said.

Ironically, proponents of North Jersey casinos are promising hundreds of millions in gambling tax revenue to redevelop Atlantic City, nearly an identical argument for gambling advocates in 1976.

Perskie blamed “local political forces” for not doing “what had to be done to take maximum advantage of the situation.”

“For each success story there is a failure story, because there are areas of the city that did not receive from city or county or local government the kind of attention, the kind of imagination, the kind of daring thought processes that they were entitled to,” Perskie said. “And as a result, some areas of the city didn’t benefit as they should have.”

In 1977, Gov. Brendan Byrne signed the Casino Control Act in front of nearly 3,000 people outside Convention Hall, or what is now called Boardwalk Hall. A band played “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

But Byrne expressed uncertainty as he signed the law with gold pen after gold pen.

“I do know that this is an historic event,” he said. “But I don’t know if history will view what we have done here with success or failure.”

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Contact: 609-272-7215 CHetrick@pressofac.com

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