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Can a ‘North Beach’ rebrand help revive Atlantic City’s Boardwalk?

Three Atlantic City casinos and businesses are partnering as North Beach. It’s the latest effort to bring new life to a portion of the financially troubled city.

The Hard Rock Casino, Ocean Casino Resort, and Steel Pier are involved in Atlantic City’s new North Beach partnership.
The Hard Rock Casino, Ocean Casino Resort, and Steel Pier are involved in Atlantic City’s new North Beach partnership.Read moreVERNON OGRODNEK

ATLANTIC CITY — A cool ocean breeze, the buzz of the casinos, and amusement-park thrills all mingle on the Boardwalk — intertwined as they will be all summer.

Historic tourist destinations, three casinos, and a strip of new businesses have united to draw more visitors to the north end of the Boardwalk. Many longtime residents recognize this area as the Inlet. Street signage suggests it’s Uptown. Now, this one-mile stretch is North Beach, a brand and a logo launched this month to attract people to the city’s northern end.

“It just makes sense to take your neighborhood and say: ‘Hey, everybody, here’s what we have. Come and see it,’” Absecon Lighthouse executive director Jean Muchanic said of the initiative.

The lighthouse is one of nine businesses involved in the collaboration, led by the 120-year-old Steel Pier. Joining Steel Pier are three casinos — Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, Ocean Casino Resort, and Resorts Casino & Hotel — as well as Showboat Atlantic City and Tennessee Avenue businesses Made Atlantic City Chocolate Bar, Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall, and the Iron Room.

It’s a rare partnership between the casinos and local businesses. They’re promoting the area as a place where visitors can spend precious leisure time and hard-earned cash gambling, drinking, eating, and enjoying the luxuries of Atlantic City. This latest effort is from a city, long known as “America’s playground,” that has pitched its positive vibes — even amid the state’s takeover because of financial troubles — under the DoAC brand.

“We are primarily concentrated on the businesses working together as one,” said Sharon Franz, Steel Pier sales and marketing director. “… You’re in a win-win situation when you all work together.”

Irish Pub manager Frank Pileggi said that when visitors just stayed inside the casinos and rarely moved along the Boardwalk or around Atlantic City, that hurt the development of the town.

Pileggi hopes the North Beach partnership is successful — noting how rare it is for casinos and other businesses to collaborate. He remains skeptical that it will encourage people to gravitate toward the Boardwalk.

“Just calling it North Beach, I don’t think it’s going to make it any busier there,” said Pileggi, who has lived in Atlantic City since 1954. “… Since we already have the people down on this end, I really don’t know whether it’s going to bring any more people.”

Before recent development on the northern end, said Mike Donovan, chief marketing officer of Ocean Casino Resort, “people wouldn’t go past a certain point” on the Boardwalk. It simply lacked the capital to attract people too far north and provided little incentive to stay. He thinks that’s changing with the addition of the new spaces and the North Beach collaboration.

“We’re bringing life back into this part of town,” he said.

The opening of Ocean Casino Resort and Hard Rock in June 2018 prompted an influx of tourists to Atlantic County. New Jersey tourism data show a 33 percent boost to room inventory with room rental increases of 20 percent in the third quarter of 2018, the first full quarter of operations for these resorts.

Even while other areas along the Shore underperformed because of a hot, rainy summer, according to the report, the number of visitors in Atlantic County surged in 2018 compared with 2017, rising 14.9 percent — representing an additional 2.67 million visitors.

The busy summer season has yet to begin for Atlantic City, but Mark Callazzo, the developer who kick-started Tennessee Avenue’s transformation after purchasing property there in 2015, said the North Beach venture would set the city apart as a travel destination.

Collaboration of the casinos and businesses on this scale is something Callazzo described as “unprecedented.”

“I know there’s the reputation that casinos didn’t play well with local businesses, and maybe that was true a long time ago,” Callazzo said, “but for the last few years anyway that I’ve been around, they’ve been pro-small business, and this just kind of shows that in a much bigger way.”

A partnership like this one could certainly help raise awareness of new development in the area — the local businesses and the casinos alike — and ultimately draw visitors, said Joe Lupo, president of Hard Rock Atlantic City.

“There’s availability to spend time walking up and down the Boardwalk at this end, having great opportunities both from a casino standpoint, from a family atmosphere as well … to see the new development in Atlantic City,” Lupo said.

He said casinos are facing challenges with increased competition.

Five casinos closed between 2014 and 2016, leaving Atlantic City with seven gambling halls. The opening of Hard Rock, formerly Trump Taj Mahal, and Ocean, formerly Revel, brought more competition to the market, resulting in dwindling profits for the remaining casinos to share.

At its height in 2006, a report from Stockton University’s Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality, and Tourism shows, gaming revenue for the area totaled $5.2 billion. By the end of 2018, that figure had shrunk to $2.9 billion.

Rummy Pandit, the executive director of Stockton’s institute, said he thinks this branding could indeed help generate buzz for the area.

More food, drink, and entertainment options would help satisfy a consumer base that increasingly desires a diversified, experience-based vacation as opposed to a trip spent sitting in front of a slot machine, he added, allowing the businesses to tap into the growing share of nongaming revenue.

“Positioning Atlantic City as a destination resort with a whole host of amenities makes sense," Pandit said.

Asked about the North Beach initiative, employees at several businesses not involved in the partnership weren’t aware of the plan.

Mohammad Saeed, the manager of the Shore Wave gift shop on the Boardwalk, said the casinos “do their own thing.”

“They don’t think these businesses are big enough,” he said, but added collaboration could help all involved.

Wasal Khan, the owner of the Lucky Star clothing store on the Boardwalk, said big-name shows attract people, but the Atlantic City casinos aren’t the draw they once were because of online gambling and the construction of gaming halls in surrounding states such as Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

More entertainment and family options are needed, Khan said, because smaller businesses like his are suffering.

“It’s hard now to pay the rent,” he said. “… If we don’t make a lot, we give the key to the landlord.”

Atlantic City Council President Marty Small welcomes the North Beach launch, which will begin June 20 with a block party along Tennessee Avenue and the Boardwalk and will include weekly Music Mondays.

“It wouldn’t matter to me what you call it,” Small said, because the bottom line of helping Atlantic City remains the same no matter the name.

The branding and events will set North Beach apart, said Mark Giannantonio, Resorts Casino & Hotel president and CEO.

“North Beach is a great name,” Giannantonio said. “It’s got a great logo. You have to back it up with some great events so when people come, they’re really going to experience something special.”

Visit Philadelphia president and CEO Jeff Guaracino, the former executive director of the Atlantic City Alliance — the state-mandated group funded by casinos that took charge of the DoAC branding — said it’s time for that area to be rebranded.

The alliance aspired to get people moving around the Boardwalk, offering successful free beach concerts and hosting bus rides to surrounding cities to promote Atlantic City. He anticipates this new partnership will highlight some of the city’s best assets.

“I think there’s a really wonderful opportunity to help visitors understand the connectivity of the Boardwalk but also the distinctive areas of the Boardwalk,” Guaracino said.