Michael and Kathy Buonasorte witnessed Atlantic City’s long spiral from up close, helpless as their gaming industry employers ignored growing regional competition and failed to keep up with trends or adapt to changing demands of clients.
Like many families in southern New Jersey, the couple has long depended on the once-thriving hotel and casino business for their livelihoods. Kathy Buonasorte, 51, is a former cocktail server at the Atlantic Club, which in January became the first casino to close. Michael Buonasorte was a chef at Revel Casino Hotel before it closed last week. He found a new job at Harrah's, but with four of the city's 12 casinos either closing their doors or announcing plans to do so this year, Kathy isn't even looking. Jobs that were plentiful for decades are drying up and the future is increasingly bleak for families like the Buonasortes.
“We feel abandoned, like no one came out to fight for us,” Kathy Buonasorte told FoxNews.com. “They are just letting the casinos fall.”
The future was bright after New Jersey voters passed a referendum in 1976, legalizing gambling in the coastal city. Although Atlantic City has remained gritty and crime ridden, the area along the boardwalk has seen billions of dollars in development over the years. Moguls like Donald Trump, Merv Griffin and Steve Wynn invested heavily in opulent hotels and gambling floors. But as other referendums allowed new resorts to open along the East Coast, giving patrons shinier and more family-friendly alternatives, Atlantic City fell behind. Now, its gambling district is a collection of faded hotels and gleaming white elephants, both of which symbolize how “America’s Favorite Playground,” as it was once called, dealt itself a losing hand.
Atlantic City casino revenue peaked at $5.2 billion in 2006, but fell 44 percent to $2.9 billion last year. As a measure of the city's stunning fall, there's even talk of converting the 1,400-room Revel, built in 2012 at a cost of $2.4 billion and closed just over two years later, into a satellite campus for nearby Stockton College.
"There's no doubt that it is too late," said Michael Buonasorte, 52, who called Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, two gaming resorts opened in Connecticut in the 1990s, "the first nails in the coffin" of Atlantic City.
Buonasorte and others say the casinos skimped on marketing, failed to diversify into more family-oriented entertainment and were sluggish in the face of regional competition.
The flurry of closures has come since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, announced a state takeover of the city's tourism district. While it is impossible to say if the crash would have come faster or slower -- or been averted altogether -- without state regulation, there's no disputing New Jersey's casino industry is now in free fall.
When The Atlantic Club shuttered in January, 1,600 people were left jobless. Two more casinos ─ Showboat and the Revel ─ both on the northern end of the Boardwalk, closed over Labor Day weekend, leaving nearly 5,000 more people without jobs. That number will continue to rise as Trump Plaza will be the next casino to close for good, leaving a third of the city’s casino workforce, nearly 8,000 people, unemployed.
Making matters worse, Trump Taj Mahal will be the next to close in November unless concessions are made with unionized workers. Trump Entertainment Resorts, which owns both the Taj Mahal and Trump Plaza, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday.
Christie's administration has fought back to recoup the lost tax revenue. Earlier this year, the state began to allow casinos to operate online gaming sites and Christie made a proposal this week to allow sports gambling, which has been long banned in Atlantic City.
Another recent proposal to keep the gambling tax dollars in the Garden State is to abandon any new development in Atlantic City and build four casinos in the Meadowland Sports complex in the northern part of the state, potentially tapping the nearby New York market in a more aggressive way.
While the moribund Trump Plaza's closing and the failure of the ambitious Revel came because the gamblers did not, the long-popular Showboat, built in 1987 and still drawing good crowds, left workers stunned.
“For them to not even flinch in making their announcement, it makes me angry, because I loved working for this company,” Melanie Gillespie, 37, who worked as a cocktail server at Showboat for nearly 20 years, told FoxNews.com. “The first story they had was that it doesn’t make money, then after the announcement, they said that they were closing to save their other three properties. What the real story is, I don’t know.”
Like others working in Atlantic City, Gillespie feels there wasn’t enough done to keep the destination attractive for both tourists and gamblers.
“When I first started, there was so much marketing being done," she said. "There were giveaways everyday. The place was crowded.
“But then all the casinos just kind of turned a blind eye," she continued. "They haven’t put the money they’ve made into the properties. How do you expect to bring people here if no restaurants are open, no giveaways, no free rooms? I think the marketing plays a big part in what’s going on now.”
Perry Chiaramonte is a reporter for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @perrych