The counterargument — and a really compelling one — lies 130 miles to the south. In 1976, Atlantic City (like Coney Island) was a formerly middle-class resort that had become a seaside wreck. New Jersey’s voters offered it the lifeline of gambling licenses, and developers rushed in. The first casino opened in 1978.
What happened, by the best of reckoning, was that the two blocks closest to the water got flooded with flashy hotels and buses full of gamblers, a passable number of local residents got jobs, and the city as a whole stayed poor and desperate. (Donald Trump’s casinos went bankrupt. Who goes bankrupt when millions are being spent on games in which the odds are literally stacked in your favor?)
The place is littered with names of failed plans: the Sands, the MGM Grand, the Revel. It is an outstanding example of income inequality, a city where the median income in 2020 was under $30,000 and the poverty rate exceeded 30 percent. Admittedly, Atlantic City had deep problems before 1978, and some money has since flowed there that otherwise would not have — but you can’t argue that gaming was the salvation everyone believed it would be. The busloads of gamblers come in and go back out; they leave some of their money behind with the casino and hotel operators, but not a whole lot of it migrates into the rest of town.
That said, it’s unlikely to happen. Even Thor admits it’s a long shot to get the single downstate casino license considering the crowded field. A failure to launch would be apt, if only because Coney Island is such a crowded graveyard of grand plans that go nowhere.
After Steeplechase Park (its first major amusement center) closed in 1964, Fred Trump bought the spectacular old glass-and-steel shed and demolished it for redevelopment — then abandoned ship and cashed out, leaving the lot empty for decades. Starting in the 1970s, Horace Bullard, a local character, bought up a lot of land and tried to rebuild a big amusement area.
He had City Hall’s support for a while, but he couldn’t quite pull together enough financing fast enough and the Giuliani administration preferred its own plans to his, crushing his dream. (He died in 2012.) The Shore Theater — a long-dormant, badly water-damaged landmark movie house and office building just off the boardwalk, formerly one of Bullard’s properties — is reportedly becoming a hotel, but that project too seems to have slowed down. Coney Island has for generations been a place of moderately illicit fun, and we all know what happens after a day of that: You face real life again, probably with a hangover.
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