Did anyone ever ask what you wanted to be when you grew up? I was and my answer rejected what my grandfather, Louie Harris, wanted to hear. His idea that I become a doctor was not even close to my ambitions. I was his last hope since my dad never became the dentist my grandparents had hoped he would be.
Instead, my father set his own destiny after WWII in 1946 by launching his Philadelphia pinball company. Over 50 years, he achieved more than he would have drilling teeth. What about gaming communities that have diverted from their roots? Have they discovered what they wanted or needed to be during their “lives?“ The answers depended on the locations. Why compare Las Vegas, Atlantic City and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with multiple regional casinos, to states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and others, where single casinos operate in specific locations, often hundreds of miles apart?
Virtually no jurisdiction has ever legalized gaming as just another tourism activity. From the early 1930s, Nevada gaming meant new money for any desert town’s treasury. In 1978, a declining Atlantic City introduced gaming to lure visitors. By 2000, six riverboat states and multiple Indian tribes legislated gaming to economically save their own failing communities. However, as gaming improved those specific jurisdictions, new recreational competition and unforeseen business challenges also confronted them. Savvy innovators established plans to “grow up,” discard yesterday’s trappings and reinvent the glitz.
For 25 years, the Las Vegas Strip‘s glamour gradually migrated south from its downtown Fremont Street roots. Conditions changed quickly once international online retailer Zappos relocated its worldwide headquarters downtown five years ago to transform the area. A miraculous makeover sparked the aging neighborhood‘s revival and Fremont Street is again a destination where visitors can experience exciting events and activities.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast’s renewal followed Hurricane Katrina‘s devastation across hundreds of miles in 2005. Mississippi legislators quickly relocated riverboat casino barges on land. Years later, investments and hard work have given Biloxi and Gulfport fresh coastal appeal.
Ironically, Katrina forced developers to redesign a comprehensive new tourist region rather than their original retrofit of gaming into an established infrastructure. I witnessed the amazing Biloxi/Gulfport rebirth in 2011 and can only imagine they are even better now.
The ultimate “Phoenix rising from the ashes” example may be Atlantic City. The seashore city has weathered numerous reinventions over its 150 years – including 40 years of gaming – and will live to enjoy more good days.
Five casinos closures since 2014 could have forever destroyed Atlantic City, but the tough Jersey spirit has prevailed and four already have new futures. The non-gaming Showboat reopened and will focus on Millennials; Revel (now called Ten) hopes to reopen this year. A union strike last summer motivated then Trump Taj Mahal owner, billionaire Carl Icahn, to close in October 2016 and sell the building on March 31st.
The Seminole Indian tribe – owners of the Hard Rock – is spending $375 million to buy and totally rebrand the property with 2,400 slots, two arenas and 3,000 permanent workers. They aim for a Summer 2018 opening. It is Atlantic City’s second tribal connection, as the Mohegan tribe owns Resorts. Finally, the Atlantic Club is a new iteration from its earlier Golden Nugget, Bally’s, etc days. The non- gaming resort will reopen with two water parks to enhance the adjacent college campus under construction.
Just as Zappos helped Fremont Street, comprehensive planning will return people to Atlantic City, Biloxi and all other gaming jurisdictions that change how they “mature.“ The common thread…a commitment to stop their livelihood and home communities from withering away into history. Recreating this scenario nationwide, jurisdictions that adjust their gaming programs reinforce stability. Attracting people to updated casinos and exciting recreational options will help them remain seasoned, mature “grown up“ communities.
Where we end up is often different than where we began. That’s what happened to me, but I think Louie would be pleased.