30 and Counting: Legalized Gambling

Since the first Atlantic City casino opened for legalized gambling 28 years ago this month, the city has become a major hot spot. We look back at the legislation that allowed gambling and its impact on the state.

Since the first Atlantic City casino opened for legalized gambling 28 years ago this month, the city has become a major hot spot. We look back at the legislation that allowed gambling and its impact on the state.

THE 30-SECOND BRIEF: During a gala Memorial Day weekend in 1978, nearly 18 months after voters approved a statewide referendum to permit casino gambling in Atlantic City, Resorts International opens the nation’s first legal casino outside Nevada. Thousands of people flood the Boardwalk to gawk at what state and gambling officials have billed as a panacea for the city’s faded opulence. Visitors arrive in steadily increasing numbers for a decade. But as other parts of the country embrace gambling, A.C. fades. Three decades and nearly a dozen casinos later, the city struggles with its rich-poor dichotomy, organized crime remains a concern, and even Miss America bolts.

THANKS, BUT NO THANKS: A November 1974 referendum that would allow state-operated casinos anywhere in New Jersey, with proceeds feeding the state’s general fund, is rejected by more than 400,000 votes.

ON SECOND THOUGHT: A 1976 vote calls for privately owned casinos only in A.C., with tax revenue supporting education and the old and poor. Supporters fan fears that New York and other states might approve gambling first and swipe New Jersey’s supposed advantage. The referendum is approved by a 300,000-vote margin, sparking jubilation in a city where 1 in 4 adults is unemployed.

THE LAND RUSH BEGINS: Property values near the ocean explode as every decrepit rooming house and vacant lot becomes a potential casino, restaurant, or parking garage. Resorts International grabs the landmark Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel.

MAY 26. 1978: At 10 am, Governor Brendan Byrne snips the ribbon on the 33,000-square-foot Resorts casino—but doesn’t place a wager. The casino features 870 slot machines, 10 roulette wheels, and 60 blackjack and 10 craps tables, although a dearth of licensed dealers leaves only a fraction of the tables open. Singer Steve Lawrence places the first bet, losing $10 at craps.

In 1984, the state finally unveils the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Casino operators can choose how to dole out proceeds for a 50-year period: 2.5 percent to the state or 1.25 percent to the CRDA for housing and other projects. Every casino chooses option two. The funds spur construction of nearly 2,000 housing units in A.C. along with dozens of projects statewide.

THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE IDEAL: By 1988, as casinos proliferate and the take grows, Atlantic City boasts 33 million visitors, up from 7 million in 1978.

THE REALITY: Time’s “Boardwalk of Broken Dreams” shows the city’s seedy side in September 1989, with a cover photo of two apparently homeless people sleeping on the beach beneath an overturned rowboat as casinos loom beyond. “This is a town noted for taking suckers,” Thomas Carver, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey, tells Time, “but it’s the biggest sucker of all.”

By early 1991, the economy is tanking; of eleven casinos open at least a year, all but one are down double digits in revenue from the previous year.

BAD TO WORSE: Those financial woes coincide with legalized gambling’s spread to Iowa and Connecticut in the early 1990s. Lotteries pimp ever-larger payoffs, Internet wagering arrives, and Las Vegas roars back thanks to its much improved family-friendly image.

In December 1993 the state Supreme Court bars the Casino Control Commission from legalizing sports betting, which is booming in Vegas.

Unable to make ends meet, the Miss America Pageant departs for Vegas in August 2005.

A March 2006 New York Times report on the tentative growth of retail and housing in A.C. hits all the optimistic notes of the past three decades. “The Southeast Inlet section is going to be the South Beach, high-end residential location of Atlantic City when you look back 20 years from now,” local condo developer Tom Scannapieco proclaims.

May in NJ, 1976–2006

May 2, 1983: U.S. senator Bill Bradley, the Princeton University alumnus and 1964 Olympic gold medalist who helped the New York Knicks win two NBA titles, is inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

May 5, 1988: In a settlement related to their role in the Price’s Pit landfill in Pleasantville and Egg Harbor, one of the country’s worst Superfund sites, about 50 U.S. corporations agree to foot the $17 million bill to clean up Atlantic City’s water sources.

May 7, 1985: To make way for a Jersey City housing project, crews begin demolishing Roosevelt Stadium, where Jackie Robinson played a year before breaking the Major League’s color barrier.

May 11, 1984:
Eight people die when fire destroys Great Adventure’s Haunted Castle.

May 17, 1996:
President Clinton signs legislation calling for police to inform residents when a sex offender has moved to their community, the so-called Megan’s Law, named for a Hamilton Township girl raped and murdered in 1994.

May 19, 1998: New Jersey raises the speed limit from 55 to 65 on 475 miles of limited-access highways, including routes 78, 80, and 95.

May 26, 1987: The state Division on Civil Rights rules that the Tiger Inn and Ivy Club, Princeton University’s last male-only eating clubs, must admit women and pay $5,000 each in damages for humiliation and embarrassment to Sally Frank, who filed a sex discrimination suit in 1979.

May 26, 1998: Ending a decades-long dispute with New York, the U.S. Supreme Court sides with New Jersey and awards it control of 24.5 of the 27.5 acres that make up historic Ellis Island.

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