Atlantic City skyline

ATLANTIC CITY — The past 10 years have not been kind to the resort.

Local economist Oliver Cooke has a name for it: “The lost decade.”

Property values fell by a third, the casino industry shed more than 21,000 jobs and the poverty rate increased dramatically.

“By any metric, the last several years have been grim for the greater Atlantic City area,” said Cooke, associate professor of economics at Stockton University. “The great recession didn’t help, but the fall of the (casino) economy played a huge role.”

But the next decade may mark an improvement, according to the South Jersey Economic Review, a biannual report released last week in conjunction with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton.

Cooke warns it could be a slow process because of how far the city has fallen over the past decade. But the announcements of a tax settlement between the city and Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and a $300 million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino at the former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort have increased confidence the city’s economy may be starting to turn around.

“The fact remains that Atlantic City’s redevelopment will take many years,” Cooke said.

Among the biggest questions is which of the recent redevelopment projects and proposals are likely to most help the city in the long run, he said.

There are other questions, too, in a city whose primary industry was hammered when casinos opened in Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere in the past decade. These siphoned gamblers from Atlantic City properties and contributed to the closings of five casinos since 2014.

The decrease in local competition generally benefited the surviving Atlantic City properties.

But Jim Kennedy, former executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said adding Hard Rock to the casino market could put the city back in the same situation it was in at the start of the decade.

“It will make for a much more spectacular trip, but you are still in the end going to hit the iceberg,” Kennedy said. “The continuing expansion of casinos in the surrounding states guarantees a sinking Atlantic City casino industry. The really good idea for Atlantic City would be to create economic diversification.”

That has been the goal of the city and Atlantic County for years, particularly in the past few years.

The reasons are in the economic data.

During the past decade, payroll employment in the city dropped by more than 25,300 jobs, or 16.5 percent, according to The South Jersey Economic Review. The gross domestic product of the metropolitan area that includes Atlantic City fell by 21 percent from 2006 to 2015, the report states.

That is the largest decline recorded among the nation’s 382 metropolitan areas, according to the report.

While the casino industry continued to retract, reliance on government safety-net programs increased, according to the report.

In 2000, unemployment insurance, Medicaid benefits and other income-maintenance programs totaled $374 million, or 4.7 percent of the personal income in the city. By 2015, that number had spiked to $907 million, or 7.6 percent of total personal income, according to the report.

Despite the dire situation, Mayor Don Guardian never gave up hope the city would return to its former glory.

“We have been planting seeds and rebuilding Atlantic City block by block so that our new beginning would lead to a brighter future,” Guardian said. “Our residents never lost hope in the greatness of Atlantic City. We are rebuilding Atlantic City together. One day, many years from now, we will all be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor in a revitalized Atlantic City.”

Contact: 609-272-7046 Twitter @acpresshuba

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