Atlantic City Running Out of Luck with New Jerseyans? A Look at the State Takeover and Casino Expansion in the Garden State

Once a treasured part of the Garden State, Atlantic City has lost its luster with New Jerseyans in recent years – now to the point where a bare majority of New Jerseyans believe Atlantic City should handle its financial problems on its own without the state stepping in. Garden Staters see little hope for AC’s future, in general, and fewer residents are planning visits to the resort town in the near future than they were in years past. Combined with more division among New Jerseyans over whether casinos should be allowed elsewhere in the state and knowing these new casinos could hurt Atlantic City further, “America’s Playground” seems to be running out of luck.

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NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Atlantic City’s financial situation continues to worsen, but a bare majority of New Jerseyans believes the state should not intervene, according to the latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll. When told that current legislation would enable a state takeover of Atlantic City to stabilize its finances, 51 percent think Atlantic City should handle these issues on its own, while 44 percent say New Jersey should step in and assume greater control.

This reverses last year’s view, when New Jerseyans solidly agreed that the state should help Atlantic City – though help at the time consisted only of a plan by an emergency management team and not an entire takeover.

“A number of New Jerseyans see both sides here, but public opinion is ultimately against the takeover legislation proposed by Governor Christie and state Senate President Sweeney,” said Ashley Koning, assistant director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University. “Whether this is due to residents’ issue with a state takeover of any kind or ever-fading hopes of a bright future for Atlantic City, it seems that the resort town is no longer treasured by New Jerseyans as it was decades ago.”

Regarding another controversial piece of Atlantic City-related legislation, Garden Staters still are divided on permitting gambling elsewhere in the state, though the balance has shifted since October 2014. Residents are now slightly more likely to think that gambling should be limited to Atlantic City (now at 49 percent, up six points) rather than believe it should be allowed elsewhere in the state (now at 44 percent, down three points).

Division over new casinos in other parts of New Jersey stems from respondents’ views of the potential effects these casinos could have. Fifty-seven percent feel that the presence of new casinos would hurt Atlantic City itself, while 21 percent believe they would help the town and another 19 percent say they would make no difference. Additional casinos also are viewed more negatively when it comes to their impact on residents living nearby: 45 percent believe the additional casinos would hurt, while 34 percent say they would help and 16 percent think they would have no effect.

Yet a majority of New Jerseyans sees additional casinos as a positive influence on both tourism and the state economy. Fifty-five percent say adding casinos would help New Jersey with each.

Results are from a statewide poll of 801 adults contacted by live callers on both landlines and cell phones from Feb. 18 to 23, 2016. The sample has a margin of error of +/-3.9 percentage points. Interviews were done in English and, when requested, Spanish.

State intervention most popular among Democrats, millennials, AC supporters

Atlantic City’s financial situation is a contentious issue with groups across the board; no group is overwhelmingly in favor of either side, with most showing a plurality or slight majority in favor of Atlantic City solving these issues by itself.

The issue is somewhat partisan. Over half of independents and Republicans want the town to handle its own issues, while four in 10 want the state to take action. Democrats are more split: 48 percent want the state to step in, versus 45 percent who want Atlantic City to handle the situation by itself.

Along with Democrats and liberals, millennials are one of few groups to show more support for a state takeover than for Atlantic City to be on its own, 52 percent to 46 percent. Those living near Philadelphia in the state’s southern region also show support for state intervention (52 percent to 46 percent), but those in shore counties are slightly more likely to believe Atlantic City should take care of these issues itself (43 percent to 50 percent).

State intervention gets some of its largest support from New Jerseyans who are more familiar with and more positive about Atlantic City. Fifty-one percent of those who have visited the resort town in the past year and 58 percent of those planning to visit in the coming year want the state government to step in. Sixty percent of those who are more hopeful about the town’s future also want an intervention, compared to 42 percent of those who say the town’s best days are behind it. Likewise, New Jerseyans who believe gambling is good for the state as a whole are more likely to want the state to intervene (at 55 percent) than those who believe gambling is bad (37 percent) or makes no difference (39 percent).

Ties to Atlantic City steer views on casino gambling elsewhere

Most groups are also split on whether or not additional casinos should be allowed in other parts of the state. Residents living near Philadelphia in southern counties (at 58 percent) or in shore counties (at 57 percent) are most supportive of limiting casino gambling to just Atlantic City.

This time, familiarity with Atlantic City and with gambling does not work in Atlantic City’s favor. Recent visitors to Atlantic City and those planning to visit are just as or more likely to support permitting gambling elsewhere, whereas those who have not visited or do not plan on visiting are more likely to support limiting gambling to the resort town. A majority of residents (53 percent) who say gambling is good for the state as a whole likewise believe gambling should be permitted elsewhere, while those who believe gambling is bad say just the opposite (at 67 percent).

New Jerseyans who are more optimistic about Atlantic City’s future are slightly more likely than those who hold a more pessimistic view to want gambling limited only to the resort town – 55 percent to 49 percent.

The good and bad of casino gambling

In general, a 39 percent plurality of residents feels that casino gambling has made no difference to the state as a whole, while another 37 percent believe it has been good for New Jersey; just 18 percent say gambling has been a bad thing. Positivity about gambling is markedly down since the 1980s and 1990s, when the activity was seen as largely positive in the state.

When it comes to the potential impact of additional casinos throughout the state, proximity to Atlantic City again plays a prominent role. Residents in South Jersey and shore counties are least likely to say adding casinos elsewhere will help tourism or the economy; they are also most likely to say the new casinos would hurt Atlantic City and residents located in the areas where they would be built.

Those who believe gambling is good for the state overall, those planning a visit to Atlantic City within the next year, and those who are more hopeful about the town’s future are all more likely than their counterparts to believe additional casinos would help tourism and the economy. These groups differ little from their counterparts on how much they think new casinos would hurt Atlantic City itself, but half who say Atlantic City’s best days are ahead and six in ten who say gambling is bad for the state believe that new casinos would hurt surrounding residents.

New Jerseyans who believe casino gambling should be permitted in other parts of the state are much more likely than those who believe it should be limited to Atlantic City to say the additional casinos would help tourism and the economy, as well as much less likely to say they would hurt Atlantic City itself or surrounding residents.

Bleak outlook for Atlantic City

New Jerseyans do not have high hopes for the place once deemed “America’s Playground”: 63 percent say Atlantic City’s best days are behind it, while 22 percent believe they are still to come – virtually unchanged since October 2014. Those who think Atlantic City should handle its own financial problems are more likely than those who support a state takeover to say the resort town’s best days are long gone, 68 percent to 60 percent. New Jerseyans who support casino gambling elsewhere in the state are likewise more negative than those who want to limit it about Atlantic City’s future, 66 percent to 62 percent.

Four in ten New Jerseyans say they have visited Atlantic City in the past year, and a third plan on visiting within the coming year. Even a majority of Atlantic City’s recent and future visitors believe the town’s best days are in the past.

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