The debate on gambling in Florida goes on. Weekend papers reported big money flowing to the legislature, both from existing gambling entities who don’t want competition, as well as those anxious to get in on the game.
Gambling is one habit we never acquired, unless you count five bucks on the pre-game line of Notre Dame football, and an occasional beer bet on the old college basketball team. But we have seen gambling close up, in the mid-80s in Atlantic City, and Florida might do well to study what happened there. When approved in 1976 gambling was touted as the savior of a once stylish resort. It hasn’t worked out that way, and that was evident even back in 1985 when we did some magazine work in Atlantic City. There had been some impressive redevelopment at the north end of the city, but much of the place was a dump. A few blocks off the glitzy casino crowded boardwalk, the shopping streets were shabby. The casinos, for the most part, did not want customers leaving their premises. They cared less about the town they were supposed to save.
The casinos were thriving. The city wasn’t. People got good paying jobs, which paid their way out of the old town. They moved to expanding communities across the bay or up and down the coast. The professional class largely abandoned the place, at least for residential purposes. There were unintended consequences, such as people quitting teaching jobs for better paying work in the casinos. And old Philadelphia neighborhood bars lost business as regulars traveled 60 miles on weekends to gamble. Atlantic City retail stores, which expected a boom, saw the opposite as people left the city.
Now, more than 30 years later, things haven’t changed much. Poverty is still high, unemployment is very high, despite all those casino jobs. But those jobs have declined in recent years. The city still has crime problems, including gangs, and political corruption over the years is about as bad as it gets – even by New Jersey standards. What money casinos did produce seemed to find its way to deals for political favorites.
It wasn’t exactly a coincidence that wise guy wars broke out in what was once described as Philadelphia’s “nicest family.” We saw firsthand the influence of organized crime. A business associate owned a laundry, which looked like a good business with all the new hotel rooms. The only problem was he did not keep the business, not after people showed up and told him he was going to sell, whether he wanted to or not. He sold.
Oddly enough, the Philly mob tried to spread to South Florida at the same time. In a classic takedown, a combination of local agencies and New Jersey State Police brought down one of the most violent mob units of that era, mostly through surveillance in the Fort Lauderdale area. In fact, Fort Lauderdale investigators went undercover in Atlantic City.
“We all carried two guns. We had to,” says Doug Haas, a retired Fort Lauderdale police captain who headed the group. “When you got a block away from the casinos, you could get killed. The place was terrible.”
Another unintended consequence was the appearance of competition, as neighboring states allowed casinos. They wanted people to keep their addictions close to home. All of that compromised the promise of gambling in Atlantic City. And the magazine we did some stuff for? Well, it could not have been done better. The owner gambled that what worked in nearby Philadelphia would do the same in Atlantic City. Indeed, the editor who built Philadelphia magazine was a consultant, and he had some of the best young talent in the business. One went on to Esquire; others have made their mark. The problem was that a magazine geared to the casino boom, with copies in all the rooms, had no place to send those readers.
The magazine went bust.