Day 2 of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) annual conference is in the books. I spent the bulk of the day on a field trip to see the redevelopment efforts in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For all the polish and seamless coordination for the journey to the Bethlehem Steel brownfield, this tour proved to be a stark contrast concerning casinos as tools of revitalization. Putting aside the strategic geographic advantage of the Sands casino in Bethlehem (closer proximity to the New York City market), the casino savior named "Revel" already appears to be a failure. The Revel story should ring familiar, with multiple decades gone by and the slide of Atlantic City's urban neighborhoods with few hints of bottoming out:
Although a beach resort destination since the 19th century, casino gambling wasn’t legalized in Atlantic City until 1976, when it was offered as a way to help the struggling city. Casinos were initially required to reinvest part of their revenues in projects that would improve the health and well-being of Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey. Gambling was intended as a mechanism for revitalization, but a loophole allowed the casinos to largely ignore this requirement. In 1984, the state established the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), funded by gambling revenue to redevelop blighted areas of Atlantic City and around the state. It’s since expanded its mission to include economic development projects, including those meant to benefit the casinos more than the city’s residents, such as the Brigantine Connector road project, which opened more land to casinos and demolished a neighborhood in the process.
The CRDA sponsored my tour of their redevelopment efforts. The guides, employees of the CRDA, gave the impression that they are caught between the local community, government entities, and the casinos. In Bethlehem, the public-private partnership produced stunning results. Atlantic City is still a hot mess, with the bizarre juxtaposition of urban blight with shiny casino fantasy worlds. Does Bethlehem do a better job of hiding the fractures beneath a healthy facade?
To be sure, both places engage in civic boosterism and there isn't a way to hide Atlantic City's problems. But Bethlehem's legacy assets, such as Lehigh University, are impressive. The leadership is dynamic. The speed with which the projects have come online is stunning. You don't hear much about it because of Billy Joel's song about Allentown, another city in the Lehigh Valley that was heavily dependent on Bethlehem Steel. Like Pittsburgh, most people are pleasantly surprised by the look of Bethlehem today.
As for Atlantic City, New Jersey doesn't typically fall into the Rust Belt region. The surprise is at the opposite end of the spectrum. You don't expect the poverty and ruin porn, the expanse of the redevelopment challenge.
Atlantic City is the canary in the coal mine for the onslaught of globalization. The wealth from the casinos doesn't trickle down to the poor neighborhoods. The urban core is a fortress. See London:
These findings raise important questions about the state of the UK’s capital city at the time the Coalition Government took power. On the one hand, they are positive, in terms of London’s economy, its labour market, and the qualifications of its inhabitants. Yet economic success does not seem to have translated into lower rates of poverty or inequality. The recession, despite its origins in the financial sector, appears to have worsened economic outcomes for those Londoners who were already poor, affecting the better-off less. As London returns to economic growth, questions will arise about how far widening inequalities can be redressed. At the same time, it will be important to better understand how the changing population in Inner London has affected poorer residents, and the ways that rising poverty in Outer London has impacted on housing, public services and communities.
Even if the Sands in Bethlehem continues to thrive and the community in aggregate benefits, will an Atlantic City-like disparity develop? I wouldn't bet on it. Yet Bethlehem would do well to take a long look at London or, better yet, Chicago.