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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the July 7, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

The Atlantic’s Back in AC

Paul Henderson discovered the second largest ocean on Earth. Nine times the size of the United States, it is fed by some of the world’s greatest rivers, including the Amazon, Mississippi, St. Lawrence, and Congo. Less grand, but also impressive, is the strong pull that the mighty body of water exerts on tourists in a number of spots around the globe. Here in New Jersey the effect is positively magnetic.

Each summer Friday, defying certain gridlock, a good shot at overheating, and all that goes along with children trapped too long in the back seat, tens of thousands of people head for the Jersey shore to initiate their young in the rituals of body surfing, building sand castles, and scanning the horizon for sails and dolphins. As soon as the youngsters grow up and get wheels, they begin to make the same trip in the same traffic conditions themselves, seeking out their peers for long afternoons of sun bathing and long nights of bar hopping. Chances are that they will still be coming long after they have married and grown old, if only to sit in their cars and gaze at the hypnotic action of the waves and the ever-shifting drama of the weather.

So, yes a number of people were aware of the ocean’s presence — and appeal — long before Henderson, president of Caesar’s Entertainment, owner of three Atlantic City casinos, had his “ah ha!” moment.

Henderson is not so much a Magellan. His was not a physical discovery. It did not require scientific instruments or an armada. It was more like Einstein’s discovery. He saw something that had always been there, but saw it in a whole new way. His gift was the ability to see what was sitting right in front of him, a quality that is more rare than one might think, especially given that fact that New Jersey’s casino industry completely missed it for more than a quarter of a century.

“I came back here six years ago from Las Vegas,” says Henderson. “Steve Wynn was spending $16 million on a fountain at the Bellagio. Here in Atlantic City we have 3,000 miles of ocean, and we weren’t using it. It’s amazing to me. Atlantic City has missed that we are a resort.”

It’s true. Casinos started going up on Atlantic City’s grand historic boardwalk in the late 1970s. They soon lined the oldest boardwalk in the country, a 4.4 mile, beautifully wide stretch of boards, nearly end to end. But instead of building upon its history as a grand promenade from which to enjoy a magnificent view, they backed their rumps right up to it, creating a wall of black tinted glass. Imagine going to visit a group of friends, only to have them line up in a row and turn their backs to you. That was what it was like to stroll the boards in Atlantic City. Even bike riding, once a pure delight, became a misery as the casinos blasted music and announcements from their blank backs out toward the ocean they could not see.

Finding the casino-ified Atlantic City boardwalk nothing but sad, the spouse and I stayed away. Then, several years ago, we took a week-long vacation to Cape May. We looked forward to seven days of tennis, biking, early morning walks on quiet streets lined with gardens and Victorian porches, and afternoons of jumping the waves. What we got was rain. And more rain. Nothing but rain.

With all of our favorite shore activities rained out, we decided to check out Atlantic City for the first time in more than 10 years. The first day we parked in the middle of the city, walked north, and saw nothing that would bring us back again. The second day we parked in the same place and walked south. There, at the very southern end of the strip of casinos, we came upon the Hilton beach.

The effects of Henderson’s discovery were immediately apparent. A palm-lined boardwalk over a gentle dune framed the ocean view. Multi-colored banners fluttered gaily, giving life to the leaden sky. Wooden gazebos and hammocks had been set up on the sand, and bright blue umbrellas and chairs were for rent. Employees in Hawaiian print shirts manned an outdoor bar.

Inside, the main bar, the Dizzy Dolphin, was shaped like a ship. There were sunset murals; six-foot long wooden fish were suspended from the ceilings; and decorations in the public areas ran to kites and jaunty little planes, like the ones that pull advertising banners along the shoreline all summer long. It hit us immediately. The Hilton had adopted a seashore theme!

Strangely enough, in a small city completely surrounded by water, this was revolutionary. Within a year, the spouse and I had made the Hilton beach our summer home. With the chauvinism common to aficionados of each and every New Jersey beach, we are convinced that this is absolutely the best summer spot on the coast — especially for central New Jersey residents. Reasons include a relatively fast, generally light-traffic drive down Route 295 and across the Atlantic City Expressway (and yes, there are jam ups on Friday afternoons and Sunday evenings, but nothing like the epic tangles going into Seaside Heights or Long Beach Island); close-in, cheap parking in lots that are never full; lots of nearby, immaculately clean bathrooms (hey, that’s a huge thing at the Jersey shore!); and water that is shallow, yet has waves big enough for good Boogie boarding.

There is something else that makes Atlantic City appealing to us. It has a bit of the feel of Miami. It is international in a way that no other New Jersey beach town is. Women in saris stroll near the water’s edge. Extended Asian families pose for photos on the boardwalk. Earlocks are common, as are turbans. Where other beaches are almost entirely upper middle class or almost entirely blue collar, in Atlantic City every social and economic strata is amply represented.

But while an urban feel is good, it has to be coupled with an atmosphere that says “fun in the sun.” The beach has to be integrated with the town, which is why the trend that Henderson started is so important. Over the past four years we’ve watched as the ripples from his discovery spread throughout the city. This year, the ripples have turned into waves.

The city, powered at least in part by its embrace of the mightily Atlantic, is well into the next stage of its development, one that is bringing it back to the natural charms that made it a star in the first place, well before the first roulette wheel was even a sparkle in the eye of the New Jersey legislature. Yes, the Borgata, the brand new superstar casino resort on the marina, is getting a lot of the credit for this, the latest AC renaissance. But it’s hard to imagine any full-blown drive to make the city a prime tourist destination that would not include an embrace of the ocean.

It is not surprising that Henderson was the first to bring the seashore into the hotels he oversees, which include Caesars and Bally’s in addition to the Hilton. He grew up in Cranford, the son of “blue collar people who worked hard for a living.” His father was a Marine who served in World War II. His parents set up housekeeping “in a little tract house.” His story and that of his family is a typical mid-century American tale, says Henderson, summing it up by saying, “I was just like Wally Cleaver.”

Wally, however, lived a landlocked life in a suburb that felt like it could have been deep in Ohio, or maybe Michigan. Henderson, on the other hand, like every living soul in New Jersey, grew up within striking distance of the Jersey shore. He and his family spent a great deal of time at Long Beach Island in the days when it was not uncommon for the families of waiters and welders to rent beach bungalows “down the shore” for the entire summer.

In the mid-1960s, after two-and-a-half years at Rutgers, Henderson went into the Air Force. He was discharged in Nevada and promptly signed up to finish college at the University of Las Vegas under the G.I. Bill. While he was studying, he worked in the casinos to support himself and his family, which came to include his wife and their four children, all of whom are now grown. “I got involved to pay my bills, and I never got out,” he says. He finds the casino industry “interesting,” but after saying that none of his children have followed him into it, he adds that it is “a very difficult business.”

“You travel extensively,” he says. “There are crazy hours and you’re not home on holidays.”

Henderson worked in the business, in Las Vegas, until gambling was legalized in New Jersey in 1978. At that time he came to Caesars in Atlantic City. Then he went back to Las Vegas, where he stayed until he assumed his current job and moved back east. And while he acknowledges that a career as a casino executive is not an easy one, Henderson is proud of his industry, and thinks that his home state’s decision to legalize casino gambling was brave — and correct.

“People fail to realize,” says Henderson, “but in 1978, when New Jersey voted to legalize gambling, there was no gambling anywhere but Nevada.” He points out that fears of organized crime and of rampant gambling addiction were formidable obstacles. “For New Jersey to pass legalization was one of the most profound things any state government has done,” he says. “Now 36 states have gambling.” If it had not been for New Jersey, Henderson is convinced that there would now be no casinos outside of Nevada.

There are any number of people who would say that would have been a good thing. There can be no doubt that casino gambling has ruined lives and caused legions of people who would never travel to Las Vegas to bet the house — and lose — close to home.

But look at the economic benefits, says Henderson. “I employee 3,500 people,” he says. Overall, Atlantic City’s casinos employ 55,000, and for each of these workers, at least another two jobs are created, he says. He is proud that most of his upper-level executives are graduates of New Jersey colleges.

For many, an Atlantic City casino paycheck is the foundation of a solid middle class or upper middle class life. For others, Atlantic City is a place to wager a piece of a paycheck. And increasingly, for singles and families throughout the region, and from far beyond the region, Atlantic City is a place to play a whole lot more than a number. This summer, signs that Atlantic City is emerging as a full-blown, oceanside resort are everywhere.

When Henderson opened the Hilton beach bar, he could only serve hotel guests. But, after several years of lobbying, the casinos have obtained permission to serve alcohol to the public on the beach. In response, the Hilton has doubled the size of its beach bar. And throughout the late spring the beaches in front of its sister hotels were the site of frenetic construction activity as they put in brand new bars of their own. Trump Plaza, one of three AC hotels owned by the Donald, added a large beach bar, too.

All of the bars are lavishly landscaped spaces with dance floors, lights, umbrellas, and a full schedule of entertainment. They are open from late-morning until past midnight, serve light meals, and host contests and special events. Beach games, including horseshoes and volley ball, are part of the mix.

Nearly all of the casinos have started renting chairs and umbrellas. The Tropicana, which is just north of the Hilton, does not have an outdoor bar, but it is a strong contender for most attractive beachside set-up. Rather than putting up wooden gazebos, it is using tents in bright, Caribbean stripes, and rents its beach gear from wooden stands painted in vivid pinks, yellows, and blues.

While Henderson provided the vision that is leading the casinos to the ocean, the sand that is vital to any seaside resort has just been substantially beefed up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Starting on Christmas Day, the Corps and its contractors, pumping sand from nearby Absecon Inlet, expanded Atlantic City’s beaches to 200 feet. Last year beaches at the southern end, where the Hilton sits, still had a good amount of sand, but much of the rest of the city’s beaches had been washed away. Staircases to the beach were dangling in air; black, mesh bags, put in place to hold the sand, were exposed, ripped, and ugly. In many places, there were only inches of beach left at high tide.

“The beach replenishment is huge,” says Henderson. “Bally’s couldn’t do a beach bar last year. There was no beach. Now people are jammed in it. There’s a dune and dune grass. The beach looks better than it has in 25 years.”

There are grumbles aplenty from residents, however. The view of breaking waves has been largely blotted out by the dunes, and will shrink a little more as the dune grass matures. In Ventnor, the next town to the south, the dune was kept lower, and the beach was widened to only 100 feet. Still, Ventnor residents, in totally random research based almost entirely on eavesdropping, aren’t happy either. But while dunes, view impeders that they are, may not be popular, the alternative, on view in Atlantic City’s denuded beaches last summer, was not pretty, either.

Meanwhile, back on the boards, most of the casinos are reaching out to the ocean in all sorts of ways. Where once there were blank walls, this summer there is the beginning of a real street — or board — culture. It’s not cafe society yet, but is moving in that direction. Some casinos, notably the Tropicana, have added nicely integrated boardwalk seating to their restaurants. Others are working at it.

The Trump Plaza’s new upscale Evo restaurant has some boardwalk seating, as does the just-opened Rainforest Cafe. Resorts, which does not have a beach bar, does have the Beachball restaurant. Decorated in a bright beach motif, it has big windows looking out on the boards. Resorts has also started serving meals in tents on the beach and is hosting scores of summer beach events, including after-dark sand volleyball featuring neon balls and players in day-glow paint.

Still not on the bandwagon, Showboat, at the far northern end of the boardwalk, offers pedestrians nothing but a blaring sound system. It’s painful to walk by.

Joining the casinos in adding life to the boardwalk are smaller entrepreneurs. Among them, Henderson singles out George Siganos for praise. Lacking the deep pockets that let casinos spend $750,000 on a beach bar, which, under orders from the Department of Emergency Management, has to be a temporary structure that can be torn down in 48 hours, Siganos dug into his own wallet to spruce up a whole block of boardwalk. The result is Opa, a Greek restaurant and bar that has received rave reviews, and a number of nice looking smaller stores and restaurants.

While small changes are integrating beach, boardwalk, and resort hotels/casinos, a huge project is going forward right in the middle of the boardwalk. There, a defunct shopping pier jutting far out into the water has been stripped right down to its girders. Armies of construction workers are transforming it into 350,000 square feet of ritzy retail and top-draw dining. According to Henderson, and to reports in Atlantic City Weekly, tenants include Gucci, Armani, and Louis Vuitton.

Is there a market for 350,000 square feet of upscale shopping in Atlantic City? The project’s developer, the Gordon Group, a Connecticut company responsible for the Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas, thinks so. In a move that does seem way more Las Vegas than Jersey Shore, the developer announced in early July that the shopping center, called the Pier at Caesar’s, will be clad in gigantic, Times Square-type video signs, which will shoot continuous advertising messages up and down the coast.

While the jumbo, moving advertisements do seem to be a bit much, a positive development is a tentative plan to erect a tram that would run from the pier to a new discount shopping center, called the Walk, in the center of the city. A success from the start, the Walk is a collection of a good two-dozen outlets, including Wilson Leather, the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Liz Claiborne, Nautica, and Bass. Part of the redevelopment of the area near the convention center and the bus station, the Walk is also home to a number of new restaurants of the IHop/Applebees/Starbucks variety, as well as independents like Babalu, a Cuban restaurant with snappy decor and an interesting menu.

The Walk has turned a barren stretch of downtown into a vibrant shopping area. It is an easy walk from the beach and the casinos, and connecting it to the new Pier at Caesar’s and the beach is a good idea. This is so because, although walking distances are relatively short, walking the length of a casino complex is no fun. Some go on for block after block, offering pedestrians nothing but views of the concrete sides of parking garages.

Now that the Atlantic City casino industry has discovered the ocean, perhaps it can do a little more to discover its home town. With or without the casinos, though, the town is showing signs of renewal and vibrancy. Just a block from the ocean, three new food markets have sprung up this spring, all a stone’s throw from the Hilton beach. Boom, a gleaming Spanish market, is chock-a-block with every variety of chili pepper. A block away, Bismillah’s aisles are full of curries. A little to the west, the Atlantic Market has big signs hanging over its aisles. “Egyptian” reads one; “Bangladeshi” reads another. A third aisle, containing cheez whiz and the like, reads “American.” There is also a substantial selection of Spanish groceries, and at the counter, aluminum trays of homemade Middle Eastern meat pies.

What fun it is to watch Atlantic City, the grand dame of oceanside resorts, come back to life. The city has been through hard times, and for a long while the influence of the casinos, job engines that they are, did little to make it an appealing place for residents or for visitors. But now Atlantic City, with an assist from a New Jersey boy who spent more time than he cared to in the desert, has discovered its ocean. And what it difference it is making.

“I’ve been east and I’ve been west,” says Henderson, “but there’s nothing like the Jersey Shore.”

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