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Monica Yant Kinney: No tears over A.C.'s big losses

Poor Atlantic City, so over the hill she couldn't persuade her 11 sister casinos to celebrate the oldest one's 30th birthday last week in style.

Poor Atlantic City, so over the hill she couldn't persuade her 11 sister casinos to celebrate the oldest one's 30th birthday last week in style.

The Queen of Resorts is royally mad about being dethroned. She blames the smoking ban, gas prices, and competition from newer, prettier slots parlors in Pennsylvania.

As my colleague Suzette Parmley reported, gaming revenue is down nearly 7 percent in Atlantic City, but if you ask me, any industry that pulls in $1.5 billion in four months deserves no pity party.

So is the house, finally, busting?

It took three decades, but at least New Jersey casino operators now know how the rest of us losers feel.

Naturally, the corporate response to the crisis is to blame, and fleece, the customer even more.

Old folks on buses once kept Atlantic City flush. Now that more seniors are depositing their Social Security checks in Wheel of Fortune slot machines closer to home in Bensalem and Chester, the gray-haired "day-tripper" has been deemed undesirable.

Regulars, even unfashionables with fanny packs, could always count on Atlantic City for comps. Now, according to Parmley's reporting, the casinos are getting choosy about who's worthy of freebies.

"What we are trying to get away from," said Mark Juliano of the Trump empire, "is giving rooms to those who don't really gamble."

Better to save the buffet bucks for a mythical twentysomething hipster who prefers to spend wildly and irresponsibly in New Jersey.

A bitter pill

I haven't always been so unwilling to feel Atlantic City's pain. It took years of observing the casino industry to become this insensitive.

July 26, 2003: Visiting Caesars with a Temple University urban-studies class, I am saddened by the sight of a blackjack fiend pounding drinks at 10 a.m., swearing and losing $100 bets faster than the students and I can blink. The pit boss lets the man play on.

Oct. 13, 2004: Covering the longest casino strike in Atlantic City's gambling history, I meet cocktail waitresses who say the best thing about the $100 a day they may make is that "it beats working the streets."

Nov. 11, 2006: Chronicling the last day of play before the Sands is demolished, I run into nostalgic Long Islanders lured to the dump by rumors of big payouts - only to blow $200 winning just $1.90.

Come to think of it, in all my years of trolling Atlantic City, I've rarely met anyone smiling. Now I can add casino bosses to the list.

Beginner's luck

Bill Kearney spends no time analyzing Atlantic City's plight.

The former high roller - he blew $1 million in the 1980s - is too busy trying to keep Pennsylvanians from suffering from gaming's success.

He's pushing legislation requiring casinos to mail players financial statements detailing every dollar spent winning - and losing - as a way to curb problem gambling.

He opposes the free booze and 24/7 hours that make casinos more tempting and tough to leave.

"Think about it," Kearney says. "What other industry has an exclusion list you can put yourself on to avoid the product?"

If nothing else, while Atlantic City casino promoters complain about losing, Pennsylvanians should weigh the cost of winning.

Once Foxwoods and SugarHouse join the slots parlors at Harrah's Chester and PhiladelphiaPark, more than $1 billion a year will be wagered in this region alone.

Granted, the 55 percent tax on gross slots revenue will fund the Convention Center expansion and eventually trickle back to gamblers statewide as property-tax relief. But what's the immediate impact of taking that money out of people's pockets and the local economy?

"If you have a restaurant or bar near any of these casinos, you're dead," Kearney says, for one example. "How do you compete trying to sell a product they give away?"

In his mind, the fewer the regulations, the more consumers will pay.

"Casinos are amusement parks without cages and safety belts," Kearney says. "Why are we waiting for the casualties?"