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Hurricane causes biggest NJ casino revenue drop

Hurricane Irene blew away a historic chunk of the Atlantic City casinos' revenue last month: The nearly 20 percent decline was the biggest monthly plunge in the 33-year history of the nation's second-largest gambling market.

The storm forced the city's 11 casinos to close for three days, causing an estimated $45 million worth of lost business during what would have been one of the busiest weekends of the year. The year-over-year numbers also were hurt by the fact that there was one fewer Sunday this August compared with August 2010.

The $278.8 million the gambling halls took in was down 19.8 percent, according to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement. The previous record was set in March 2009, which saw a 19.4 percent decline.

Gov. Chris Christie ordered the casinos to close as Irene bore down on New Jersey with predictions of widespread damage.

The casinos closed around 8 p.m. on Aug. 26, a day and a half before the storm hit, to allow for the orderly evacuation of Atlantic City and surrounding shore towns. They reopened at noon on Aug. 29, the day after the storm hit.

The storm weakened as it reached New Jersey's shores, and damage to Atlantic City was minimal.

Irene wrecked what was shaping up to be one of Atlantic City's best months in quite some time, said Don Marrandino, eastern regional president of Caesars Entertainment Inc., which owns four of the city's 11 casinos.

"We were having a hell of a month," Marrandino said. "We were full, with great numbers. There were sold-out concerts. Then it was just Mother Nature. We don't seem to catch many breaks."

The closure cost Atlantic City's casinos a combined $45 million, Marrandino and several other casino executives estimated. Business also was lost before and after the shutdown.

"We were affected big-time on the Thursday before the storm, Friday most of the day, we lost all day Saturday and Sunday," he said. "Monday we were 50 percent off and Tuesday we were still 25 percent off. The storm really clipped us."

Likewise, Tony Rodio, president of the Tropicana Casino and Resort, said it wasn't until Aug. 31 — three days after the storm — that business at his casino returned to normal.

"This wasn't just a three-day event," he said. "We lost business for days after that."

The casinos' take from slot machines fell nearly 21 percent to $193.7 million, while table games revenue decreased by 17 percent, to $85.1 million.

The biggest decline was at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, down 35.5 percent to $25.9 million. Trump Plaza Hotel Casino got hit almost as badly, down 34.9 percent to just over $11 million.

ACH, the casino formerly known as the Atlantic City Hilton Casino resort, was down 27.7 percent to $11.8 million; The Showboat Casino Hotel was down 25.4 percent to $21.6 million; and Resorts Casino Hotel was down 23.2 percent to $12.4 million.

Bally's Atlantic City was down 22 percent to $30.4 million; Harrah's Resort Atlantic City was down 21.4 percent to $34.9 million; and the Golden Nugget — the only Atlantic City casino to keep its hotel and restaurants open during the storm, though its casino closed — was down 14.1 percent to $11.2 million.

Caesars Atlantic City was down 10.5 percent to $38.2 million; the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa was down 9.9 percent to $54.4 million; and the Tropicana was down 8 percent to $26.4 million.

For the first eight months of the year, Atlantic City's casinos won $2.3 billion, which is down 8.7 percent from the same period in 2010.

Atlantic City is in its fifth year of a revenue decline that began in late 2006 when the first slots parlor opened in neighboring Pennsylvania. Since then, Atlantic City's casinos have lost $1.5 billion in revenue and thousands of jobs.

But Rodio, the Tropicana president, said had it not been for the hurricane, Atlantic City's revenues would have been down only about 5 percent in August.

"It's getting better little by little," he said. "I see light at the end of the tunnel. We're not at the bottom yet, but I can see the bottom from where we are now."

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Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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