ATLANTIC CITY — More than sixty-thousand people can’t be wrong. Atlantic City can still put on a heck of a show.
Throngs of music fans packed the beach and Boardwalk on Thursday for a free concert of impressive proportions. Country-music star Blake Shelton performed for a crowd that stretched from Michigan Avenue to Martin Luther King Boulevard. Another massive crowd is expected Sunday, when Lady Antebellum is set to take the same stage.
“I would say this is the biggest weekend Atlantic City has had since the Beach Boys in 1983,” said Joe La Sala, president of Local 77 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which built the sprawling venue from the sand up.
The concerts are the centerpiece of an ongoing campaign to bring tourists to Atlantic City for reason other than gambling. With gambling revenues plummeting in recent years, officials are pining to reinvent the town into a family-friendly destination less reliant on slots and table games.
“This is what we’re hoping for. This is the new Atlantic City, something way beyond just gaming,” Mayor Don Guardian said Thursday as a crowd buzzed around him. “Great concerts, people coming down with their family and enjoying … the whole weekend,” he said.
Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit marketing firm for the city, said, “It’s about showcasing what we’re becoming, not what we’ve been.”
“The most important message we can send is: Atlantic City is very, very busy. We are alive and kicking and we have a very bright future if people would stop telling us we’re dead,” she said.
Reports coming out of Atlantic City in recent weeks have, indeed, been funereal.
Three Boardwalk casinos have said they could be shuttered by summer’s end, taking nearly 20-percent of local casino jobs with them.
Tough times in the local casino market are a symptom of growing competition as gambling halls pop up throughout the mid-Atlantic.
Maureen Fullaway has heard the doom and gloom about Atlantic City from her home in Brick. “It’s not good news. They’re really making us think that this place is going to be shutting down,” she said Thursday.
But the scene she was seeing, of a Boardwalk absolutely teeming with people,“doesn't comport,” she said. “We’re happy to see so much activity up here because we didn’t know what to expect. We’re just hoping that in September it stays lively like this.”
Fans began gathering near the concert site around 6:30 a.m.
Samantha Blackman was among the first to arrive. "He's probably one of my favorite country singers," Blackman said of Shelton.
Behind her were hundreds of people lugging umbrellas, towels, coolers and other beach supplies.
Some were clad solely in bathing suits while others donned full country getups — overalls, cowboy hats and boots.
While the concert was free, some of the amenities were not; parking at Bally's and Caesar's cost up to $50. Beers on the beach were $6 or $7.
Just a few hundred yards from the embattled Trump Plaza casino, set to close in mid-September, high prices didn't seeming to irk mid-day revelers.
"There's not a cloud in the sky, it's fantastic," said Christian Meyer, of Deptford. "Being here today for a free concert at the beach, you can't beat it. Atlantic City, it's a destination for a fun family time," he said.
Meyer and his crew were at the gates when the venue opened at 10 a.m. Four hours later, the group had issued a standing order to "Rob the Beer Man": check-in every 20 minutes.
Their carefree spirit contrasted sharply with the mood inside a nearby command center, where emergency-services and security personnel were poised to respond to any incidents at a moment’s notice.
Police monitored closed-circuit cameras stationed along the Boardwalk and also kept their eyes on social-media websites.
“We’re looking at anything trending relevant to the event,” said Deputy Chief William Mazur.
Mohammad Asghar said his souvenir shop on the Boardwalk was seeing a slight bump in business, by around five to 10 percent.
"It's a little bit better than normal," he said.
But the sale of concessions at or just outside the venue itself was diverting dollars away away from Boardwalk businesses, he said. "T-Shirt is over there. Soda is over there. Ice cream is over there. Food is over there. Who's going to come over here?," he said,
Meanwhile, Abdul Rauf, who owns two small businesses on the Boardwalk, said business for him was about twice as brisk as usual on account of the huge crowd.
“Whatever I usually do on a regular Thursday, it is like double today,” he said. “Whatever they could do to bring people here … is good for us, he said from his sundries shop.
Just after 6 p.m., the man of the hour hit the stage.
"I didn't come here to play volleyball, go swimming or build sandcastles, I came here to drink and play country music." Tens of thousands of people obliged.
Staff writers Steve Hughes, Braden Campbell and Lynda Cohen contributed to this report.
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