AC casinos suffer huge decline in Sept.

October 9, 2008 5:03:17 PM PDT
If the president of the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa is right, Atlantic City casinos experienced their biggest revenue decline in history in September. Revenue figures for September are due out on Friday from the state Casino Control Commission, but Larry Mullin says he expects them to be down about 15 percent.

Mullin made his comments at a City Council meeting in support of delaying a smoking ban for a year, due to the worsening economy.

"The timing is the worst possible time to implement a smoking ban," Mullin said.

Mullin estimated that if a smoking ban took effect next week, the city could experience a 25 to 30 percent decline going forward.

"These are difficult times," added Mark Juliano, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts, which operates three casinos here. "The Atlantic City casino industry is simply not in a position to absorb another negative factor."

The council gave preliminary approval to the delay, but confusion reigned over whether the ban would still take effect next Wednesday, only to expire after a week. That's because the council's vote this week to delay the ban still needs a final vote two weeks from now to become official.

Under a vote taken by the council in April, the smoking ban is to take effect Oct. 15, and nothing has been done to legally change that yet. Council members were huddling with lawyers Thursday morning trying to figure out what to do.

Meanwhile, Harrah's announced Thursday that the gambling floors at the four casinos it operates in Atlantic City will go smoke-free starting Oct. 15. They will remain so regardless of the council's action on the citywide ban, according to Alyce Parker, Harrah's vice president of public affairs.

The company said it has "abided by the intent of the Atlantic City law" and has spent $7 million building climate-controlled indoor smoking lounges at Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's Resort and Showboat. Each has an advanced air circulation system that will vent smoke to the outside of the building and prevent it from entering the casino floor.

If indeed the city's September casino revenues decline by 15 percent, that would make it the single largest monthly decline in the 30-year history of legalized gambling here, according to Dan Heneghan, a spokesman for the casino commission.

The next greatest decline occurred in January 1994 when Atlantic City was hit hard by a series of snow and ice storms that kept gamblers away, and sent revenue down by 13.6 percent.

On four occasions over the past 20 months, Atlantic City has seen monthly declines of 10 percent or more. The most recent was an 11 percent decline in June of this year.

Dennis M. Farrell Jr., a gaming analyst for Wachovia Capital Markets, said some Atlantic City casinos could go out of business if a smoking ban were implemented.

"We believe there is a high probability that the Atlantic City marketplace could see more than one casino close its doors in the next two years, unless the full smoking ban is delayed or state relief is provided to these properties," Farrell wrote in a recent note to investors.

The worsening economy won't be solely to blame for rotten numbers in September. Labor Day fell on Sept. 1 - a Monday - meaning that most of the benefit from the holiday weekend occurred in August. A significant rain storm occurred on an early September weekend, further keeping people away from the resort town.

And Sept. 2007 had five Saturdays - always a big gambling day - compared with four this year.

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