ATLANTIC CITY - Members of the clergy locked arms as they led a march of about 400 Unite Here Local 54 members in "a prayer vigil for Atlantic City's service economy" on Wednesday night.
"This is union territory," the casino workers chanted as they marched along New Jersey Avenue amid car horns honking in support. Many held signs, including Linda Bragg, 56, of Atlantic City, who works at Bally's. Hers read: "Atlantic City - Broken Promises."
"We don't want to be a forgotten town," she said. "I grew up with all these people. We made millions for the state. It's really heart-wrenching. A mess."
The march, on the eve of three planned casino closures, started between the Revel and Showboat casino hotels on the Boardwalk at 6:30 and ended more than an hour later at New Shiloh Baptist Church on Atlantic Avenue. Several pastors and bishops held a prayer service in support of the employees, many of whom are members of their churches.
"If these gambling houses close, we're going to make lemonade out of them," said Pastor Eric McCoy, president of the Fellowship Churches of Atlantic City. "The Lord will show the way. We are here for you."
About 6,400 casino workers will be let go in the next few weeks, starting with Showboat's closing Aug. 31. Revel is set to close by Sept. 2 and Trump Plaza two weeks later.
The battered resort is bracing for the massive layoffs.
"This [march] is about what's at stake," said John R. Schol, bishop of the United Methodist Church-Greater New Jersey Conference, which has 500 member churches. Schol marched near the front. "This is about jobs, food on the table, school uniforms, and what these workers represent to their communities.
"These job losses not only affect Atlantic City, but the entire state," he said. "It will be devastating for this entire region."
The biggest closing among the three is Revel. Built at a cost of $2.4 billion, Revel, which employs about 3,200 workers, was beset by consistently low gambling revenues that were far below what was needed to sustain its massive operations.
It finally collapsed last week as a delayed auction failed to produce a qualifying bidder.
On Monday, Revel attorneys gave a federal bankruptcy judge closing dates of Sept. 1 for the hotel and Sept. 2 for the casino. John Cunningham, a Revel attorney, said he hoped the closing would help spur a sale, since prospective bidders are valuing the property at levels more in line with a closed casino than an operating one.
"We are bleeding money every week," Cunningham told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gloria Burns.
The state Division of Gaming Enforcement announced Wednesday it had given final approval to Revel's shutdown on those dates.
On Monday, gambling regulators confirmed that Showboat will close at 4 p.m. Aug. 31 - leaving 2,133 without jobs. Gamblers will have until 5 p.m. to redeem gambling vouchers and chips. Aug. 30 will be the last night to stay at the Showboat hotel.
Trump Plaza, which employs about 1,100, plans to close Sept. 16.
Revel, Showboat, and Trump Plaza will mark four closures this year. The Atlantic Club closed in mid-January.
Several politicians, including State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) and Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, offered their support as the workers gathered on the Boardwalk before the march.
"This was a union town, is a union town, and will be a union town," Guardian said. "Hopefully, we will get these properties sold and breathe life back into them by the spring."
As he left the prayer service, a downcast Wilmar "Willie" Salazar, 48, of Atlantic City, said he was at a loss as to what he will be doing once Trump Plaza closes.
"I've spent 25 years there," he said. "It's been a long time since I had to look for another job. I'm thinking of maybe going back to Colombia. I worry most about my mom. I take care of her. She is older and needs her medicine. I just don't know yet."
Gaming analysts and industry experts have said Atlantic City has too many casinos and not enough gambling demand to sustain them all. After the three casinos fold, the resort will be left with eight.