Utter the words “Atlantic City” and they conjure a wealth of imagery, from sandy beaches to the iconic boardwalk to towering casinos and more. Long loved for its proximity to the ocean and the cooling breezes that ease the swampy summer heat, Atlantic City has been a destination for tourists and holiday travelers for centuries. The city continues to evolve today, reshaping itself as a destination with much more to offer than simple day trips to slot machines. Despite a difficult economy, new restaurants and shops have sprung up, enticing more and more people not simply to visit but to stay.
How it All Began
The island upon which modern day Atlantic City is located was originally known as Absecon and was settled by the Lenni-Lenape Indians who traveled there in the summertime from the mainland via the Old Indian Trail, located along roughly the same route as today’s Florida Avenue.
The first owner of Absecon on record was an Englishman named Thomas Budd, who took possession of the land as part of a settlement with holders of a royal grant in the late 1670s. Although he was the first owner, Budd was not the first non-Native American resident of Absecon. That honor went to Jeremiah Leeds and his family, who built the island’s first permanent structure in 1785. The Leeds family went on to transform the island, growing crops, raising cattle and opening the island’s first boarding house, known as Aunt Millie’s, in 1838.
Atlantic City was incorporated in 1854, the same year train service began from Philadelphia. The rail service was the brain child of Dr. Jonathan Pitney, an Absecon doctor, and Philadelphia-based civil engineer Richard Osborne. The two decided that championing the creation of a train route from a major city such as Philadelphia would improve the island’s prospects as a resort town. And – true story – Osborne is credited with giving Atlantic City its name while Pitney is credited with naming and placing the city streets, naming the streets that run parallel to the ocean after the world’s oceans, i.e., Pacific, Atlantic and so on while the streets running east to west were named after the U.S. states. Which means we have them to thank for all those memorable place names in Monopoly.
In the hot summer months, Atlantic City was a refuge for families and tourists in search of cooler ocean breezes and beaches that seemed to stretch on for miles. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Atlantic City averages more than 200 sunny days a year. Visitors loved the beaches so much that tracked-in sand became a major nuisance in hotel lobbies. To solve the problem, the city build its most iconic structure – a world-famous boardwalk that stretched seven miles before a hurricane destroyed most of it in 1944. Today, according to the city's tourism office, the boardwalk extends six miles and is 60 feet wide.
Throughout the late 1800s, Atlantic City continued to grow, with new hotels springing up all along the beachfront. A series of piers – including Ocean Pier, the world’s first oceanside amusement pier – were built. More than 27,000 people lived in Atlantic City in 1900, up from roughly 250 a mere 45 years earlier.
The building trend slowed somewhat but nevertheless continued, until 1976, when the state of New Jersey approved casino gambling for Atlantic City, whereupon many of the classic hotels were promptly replaced with casinos. The first of these was the Resorts International, which became the East Coast’s first legal casino when it opened in 1978. Today, the city operates 11 casinos, most of which have evolved into resort casino hotels, and is second only to Las Vegas in the number of casinos operating in a single municipality.
As of 2008, the 17.4-square-mile Atlantic City was home to close to 36,000 people with another 230,000 living in the metropolitan area known as Atlantic City-Hammonton. Divided into nine districts – The North Inlet, The South Inlet, Bungalow Park, the Marina District, Venice Park, Downtown (also known as Midtown), Ducktown, Chelsea and Chelsea Heights – Atlantic City boasts a healthy condo market and roughly zero co-ops, says Herbert Hartman, owner of Ocean Club Realty and Boardwalk Realty, both located in Atlantic City.
Despite the difficult conditions facing most housing markets in the United States, Hartman describes Atlantic City’s market as “fair” right now. A typical one-bedroom condo is priced right now at anywhere from $199,000 to $500,000, depending on location, amenities, and so forth. “There’s something to fit just about every budget,” Hartman says.
Sales continue to move along steadily, if not spectacularly, as some buyers take advantage of more competitive pricing. Hartman attributes that to the fact that “Atlantic City is a beach resort with a lot more to offer than just the beach. There are a million other things to do here, and we have a great proximity to all the major metropolitan areas.”
Much of that commercial and residential diversification has taken place over the last several years, says Elaine Zamansky, media relations manager for the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The last five years have seen a lot of growth in shopping districts and entertainment,” she says. “And there are a lot more restaurants.” During the city’s recent Restaurant Week, more than 70 eateries took part. “That just shows how the restaurant and dining scene has exploded. The restaurants are doing pretty well, despite the economy and lots of competition.”
Joe Kelly, president of the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “We see a lot more people coming in for non-gaming activities,” he says. Kelly credits this at least in part to the slowed economy. “Three or four years ago, you were having billion-dollar investments in the retail and entertainment marketplace, but that has slowed in the last two years. The advantage is that this forces you to diversify your marketplace. With these new products, Atlantic City is poised to do very well when the economy begins to recover.”
Although the casino resorts are still an enormous draw for tourists of course, the addition of more restaurants, shops and other offerings has helped maintain interest in Atlantic City as a place to live, not just visit. It’s even home to New Jersey’s first wind farm, consisting of five 1.5 megawatt turbine towers 400 feet high.
Certainly, Hartman says, “There are a lot of vacation properties, but we also see people who have had vacation properties here all their lives coming back and retiring here.”
Interest from overseas remains strong as well. “We have extremely diverse ownership,” Hartman says. “We have permanent owners from every part of the world.”
Truly, a huge part of Atlantic City’s attraction is what has always attracted people to Atlantic City – the ocean. “The closer you are to the ocean, properties have retained their value extremely well,” says Kelly. “And there are those who are looking at the market now who maybe thought they couldn’t get into a home before.”
Preparing for the Future
Optimism runs strong in Atlantic City, despite the perception some people might still have about a city that did indeed suffer through some very harsh years in the latter half of the last century. “Especially right now, there may be misconceptions that we’re down in the dumps,” Zamansky says. “But we’ve got great spas, great golf, including a course ranked by the Forbes Travel website as one of the best. Occupancy rates in our hotels have remained fairly robust, even after adding 3,000 new hotel rooms. Atlantic City is still a very popular resort destination.”
Although the city’s gaming industry is facing competition from Pennsylvania, which recently legalized table games in its slot casinos, Atlantic City is still planning for a profitable and stable future. The delayed $2.5 billion Revel Casino development recently signed an agreement with a Chinese construction firm to help complete the project by summer 2011. With that kind of growth and employment potential still on the horizon, Kelly says plans are underway to help individuals who may land jobs at the casino learn how to become first-time home buyers, especially in light of the fact that “The slower economy has caused folks to offer more incentives,” he says. “We have a lot of candidates for first-time home ownership.” And that's something that bodes well for the Atlantic City condo market.
Throughout its history, Atlantic City has weathered all kinds of storms, both literal and figurative. Despite the difficult economy, the city seems not only to be surviving but growing in new and promising directions. With condo sales holding steady, with new restaurants and entertainment taking root throughout the city, with the casinos holding firm and new development taking shape on the horizon, Atlantic City seems uniquely poised to end up a winner.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer, teacher and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.