Tough sell: Official markets Atlantic City

Imagine the problems in trying to market Atlantic City to the world.

One casino closed in January. Three of the remaining 11 resorts could be shuttered by September.

Atlantic City gaming revenue fell to $2.8 billion in 2013, the Boardwalk’s lowest total since 1989.

Almost daily, headlines concerning the market’s demise appear in the nation’s top media outlets, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.

The investment community has soured on Atlantic City.

Moody’s Investor Service this week cited “weakened tax base, revenue-raising ability and broader economic outlook” in its most recent Atlantic City downgrade.

Welcome to Jeff Guaracino’s world.

As chief strategy and communications officer for the Atlantic City Alliance — the agency charged with marketing the seaside resort community since 2011 — Guaracino remains upbeat on the positive trends that have emerged despite the recent bad news.

He points to facts that often have been missed.

Weekends have been busy on the Boardwalk in the summer months. Hotel room rates are on an upswing, and occupancy has been strong.

“There is a misconception that declining gaming revenue means no one is there, and that’s damaging,” Guaracino said. “We’re trying to fix that. We can show that the hotel rooms are filled, the Boardwalk is filled and the third-party businesses are seeing double-digit increases in revenue. Gaming revenue is a challenge, and no one is arguing that.”

Atlantic City is slowly diversifying. Last year, the beachfront Margaritaville restaurant and gaming area opened at Resorts Atlantic City. The Claridge, which was closed under Caesars Entertainment’s ownership, reopened as a nongaming boutique hotel and is charging up to $300 a night for a room.

The Walk, an outlet mall adjacent to the Boardwalk casinos, continues to attract customers.

Ground was broken recently on a Bass Pro Shops outdoor sporting goods location that will open next year.

Harrah’s Atlantic City is building a $126 million convention center.

Atlantic City marketers are promoting two free concerts next week on specially built stages outside Caesars Atlantic City featuring country music stars Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum.

In a statement last month, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said nongaming revenue is increasing and jobs are being created through construction projects.

Guaracino said the Alliance — a nonprofit created as part of New Jersey’s 2011 legislation to reposition Atlantic City — is also planning to beef up its midweek convention business through a marketing effort.

He is also quick to point out that the Atlantic City Alliance, which is funded through a $30 million annual assessment to the casinos and operates under a marketing agreement with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, is only in the middle of its five-year master plan.

“Everyone, from the mayor, to the state, to the governor, to the port authority, wants a perfect destination,” Guaracino said. “For 30 years, Atlantic City has been a successful marketplace. We are all trying to continue that goal.”

Guaracino was in Las Vegas to attend the Destination Marketing Association International convention at Aria.

Last week, three Atlantic City-area state lawmakers said they want New Jersey casino regulators to force Showboat owner Caesars Entertainment Corp. and the owners of the Trump Plaza to keep their respective resorts open for another four months so new buyers could be sought.

The Showboat is slated to close Aug. 31, while Trump Plaza has said it would shut down Sept, 19. Meanwhile, operators of the bankrupt Revel said the casino will close unless a buyer is found through an Aug. 6 auction.

With the Atlantic Club closing in January, Atlantic City could lose one-fourth of its resorts in a year.

Guaracino said the only positive from any casino closing is that gaming business would transfer to another casino property. He said the city is trying to determine the best number of casinos for the market to operate profitably.

Since 2006, Atlantic City’s annual gaming revenue has tumbled about 55 percent, a reflection of the sour U.S. economy, casino competition from neighboring states and lack of attention by state and city leaders.

One effort is to make the Boardwalk less reliant on gaming revenue. Guaracino pointed out that 77 percent of all revenue in Atlantic City came from gaming. The figure was down to 71 percent in 2013.

“We’re advertising and still showing effectiveness,” Guaracino said. “We’re moving the needle in the right direction.

Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.

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