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Christie-Langford battle may decide the fate of Atlantic City

Atlantic City's casinos emerged from Hurricane Sandy largely unscathed. The rest of the city, however, is a wreck. Which, when you think about it, is more or less how the last 35 years have played out on Absecon Island.

Atlantic City's casinos emerged from Hurricane Sandy largely unscathed. The rest of the city, however, is a wreck.

Which, when you think about it, is more or less how the last 35 years have played out on Absecon Island.

The casinos - until recently at least - have thrived, racking up huge profits, while much of the rest of Atlantic City continued its slide into a Camden-like brew of violence and abandonment.

I was powerfully reminded of this decades-old dynamic when an enraged Gov. Christie uncorked his latest attack on Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, calling him a "rogue mayor" for supposedly countermanding Christie's hurricane evacuation order. It turns out Langford didn't really do that, or at least not in the way Christie implied.

But Christie is not one to get caught up in nuance, particularly where Langford and Atlantic City are concerned. Earlier this month, when the only storm battering Atlantic City was the latest homicide wave, the governor told reporters Langford had "failed the city" and was "impossible to work with in any kind of significant way."

Langford, meanwhile, may be the only New Jersey politician capable of matching Christie tirade for tirade. The mayor told NBC he looked forward to confronting Christie "mano-a-mano" to hash over his handling of Hurricane Sandy. Last year, he accused the governor of trying to force a Shore version of apartheid on Atlantic City in the form of a tourism district.

But what does the racially charged feuding of two politicians have to do with the future of Atlantic City? Unfortunately, everything. Because unless Langford and Christie, and the interests they both represent, can find at least a shred of common ground, Atlantic City has no shot at recovery.

I'm not talking about the physical damage wrought by Sandy. Most of those who still live or own businesses in Atlantic City are fiercely committed to the community, and I expect they will dig out and rebuild with as much diligence as any of the storm's victims.

No, Atlantic City's problems go far deeper. Gaming revenue is off 37 percent from its 2006 peak, a huge hit attributable in part to the sluggish economy but mostly to the rise of legal gaming in Pennsylvania, New York, and Maryland. Sandy is only making matters worse, costing the casinos about $5 million every day they are closed, as The Inquirer's Suzette Parmley reported Thursday.

The competition's impact is obvious enough: Why go to Atlantic City to play slots when the same machines are available on Delaware Avenue?

Atlantic City's only hope - which tourism, civic, and gambling leaders, to their credit, all appear to recognize - is for the city to build itself into something much more than a gaming destination.

That's why you see the casinos increasingly emphasizing dining and entertainment (albeit a few decades after Las Vegas figured out that strategy), and that thinking was behind the creation last year of the tourism district.

There's real irony here. The casinos were supposed to save Atlantic City from an inevitable and perhaps permanent decline. The gaming halls would bring tax money and jobs, bailing out a broke and blighted resort town that was 40 years past its peak.

Now the casinos are in a position where they need Atlantic City; they need local restaurants and shops to come back, they need bustling city blocks, they need safe sidewalks for their guests to stroll. They need, in other words, for Atlantic City to be more the way it was in the old days, long before the casinos arrived.

The casinos are in an uncomfortable position. After all, the gaming halls were built like fortresses along Pacific Avenue with few windows and fewer street-level exits, the better to trap gamblers inside their walls (and thus, necessarily, keep them away from locally owned businesses).

But nonetheless, real opportunity exists in Atlantic City's crisis. The interests of the city and the casinos are, at last, a bit better aligned. It's possible to imagine a resort that generates perhaps less cash for the casino companies, but a bit more for local commerce and residents.

Which is why the latest Christie-Langford fracas is so disheartening. Langford has some serious flaws; too many, really, to enumerate here. But Christie, in his open contempt for the man, comes across as utterly indifferent to the concerns of the Atlantic City neighborhoods that make up Langford's not-insignificant political base.

And that disdain is a problem. Langford, after all, won 62 percent of the vote in the 2009 Democratic primary, and he won the general election by a 3-1 margin.

Christie would do well to remember that. Saving a city is hard enough without alienating up to three-fourths of its citizens.