August 01, 2017

Doubling down on Atlantic City: Live Nation puts $$$ where its mouth is

Atlantic City Live Music
P!nk Feature Photo Tim Becker/Live Nation

The much-anticipated P!nk concert attracted an estimated 44,000 to the A.C. boardwalk.

Albert Lee spent most of his summers in Atlantic City. The 37-year-old lives in Philly now, but for years he stayed at his parents' home on the Jersey Shore.

“There is no question that people in the area still love the shore,” says Lee. “But A.C. does have an image problem.”

The picture of Atlantic City today borrows from its legacy on television shows like Boardwalk Empire, both real and fictional accounts that have long celebrated it as a beachside gambling mecca, a place that the famous and infamous collided. Despite modern-day problems that have admittedly faded its shiny legacy a bit, many people – especially locals and business owners – would like to see A.C. get some of its magic back.

It’s been a tough few years as big-name casinos like Showboat and Revel closed their doors, and Donald Trump’s once-glitzy Taj Mahal and Trump Plaza went bankrupt. The most recent headline news about A.C. wasn’t about new construction or even celebrity appearances, but how lavish furnishings were being sold off piece by piece from yet another shuttered casino. And then there’s the skyrocketing unemployment, the competing casinos in nearby Pennsylvania, and fickle shifts in cultural trends sending moneyed tourists elsewhere for the latest and greatest. A.C. has been scrambling to find new ways of carving a niche for itself while negotiating the rocky road of New Jersey politics. It hasn’t been easy.

Take for instance Bader Field, a 143-acre piece of land that’s been sitting empty for years despite its potential for development. The area surrounding Bader (near the airport) has been the site of rumored projects for more than a decade that have gone absolutely nowhere. And yet a story by the Press of Atlantic City in July talked to locals who said they would love to see the land developed to attract more young people and more families, something, anything to bring people and jobs into A.C. A city resolution could make that happen if (a big if) someone comes along with a great idea and a starting bid of, say, $155 million.

'SOMETHING POSITIVE FOR THE COMMUNITY'

A question being asked a lot these days is what a new and improved A.C. would actually look like? Would it be a beach town with a fascinating history that ultimately attracts tourists for food, drink, shopping and shows? What about a culture center with a vibrant shore community by day and night?

To re-create itself as either or both of these places, Atlantic City as we know it will not likely be able to rely on the same safety nets it had for decades – namely gambling. The slots and tables haven’t had the appeal they used to. Gambling doesn’t seem to be enough to woo tourists with fat wallets from throughout the region, especially when casinos have popped up throughout Pennsylvania and online gambling is changing the way people interact.

If someone were to place a big bet on A.C.’s future, the odds might be on live entertainment and the beach, a combination that truly sets A.C. apart from other casino destinations, including Vegas. Judging from the past two summers, it’s live music shows on the beach that have been packing the boardwalk for the first time in years.

The night that P!nk played the boardwalk, local Facebook feeds were populated with pictures and videos from the show. These posts came from families with kids, as well as tweens and LGBT fans of all ages and genders. The sheer diversity of these social media posts might have made someone sitting in Philly feel like everyone they knew was in A.C. that night. A.C. looked like the place to be.

The most recent Live Nation show, a much-anticipated concert headlined by P!nk (it was the only East Coast date on the suburban Philly native’s tour), attracted an estimated 44,000 to the A.C. boardwalk. According to Live Nation, the Atlantic City BeachFest Concert Series has doubled its ticket sales since last summer. Last year’s shows attracted 20,000 to 25,000 people compared to over 40,000 in July.

In addition to packing restaurants, hotels and shops, the P!nk show also did something else to breathe some new life into the struggling beach resort – Live Nation donated $30,000 of profits from the show to the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club, an organization that has been struggling as economic support has dried up. The money, according to Live Nation, will be used to rebuild the Chelsea Club, an after-school club that has been closed since Hurricane Sandy.

“Every year we do something positive for the community,” says Geoff Gordon, Live Nation’s Philadelphia regional president. “P!nk is from the area – her mom went to Atlantic City High School.” He says making the donation was really a collaborative effort between the artist and Live Nation. One dollar from each ticket sold was given to the club. It’ll be used to support programs for local kids in the community ages 5 to 12.

NoneCourtesy of Live Nation/for PhillyVoice

“The money was an unexpected gift,” Maryann Elroy, director of development for the Boys and Girls Club, told SNJToday.com.

Gordon, who has been overseeing the A.C. concert series for the past few years, admits he’s seen a steady rise in attendance for these shows – which range from pop and country to rap. The more tickets being sold means more charitable donations can be made to the local community. “The crowds have really been wonderful,” he says, noting a pretty wide swath of ages and diversity depending on the acts.

The restaurant and bar owners can’t seem to get enough of events like these, ones that bring a healthy dose of people into the community for one night or more, people who tend to eat, drink and spend their money well beyond the concert venue. Just this month, A.C. is hosting several drag shows, big comedy acts and the upcoming, very popular Dylan Fest which pays homage to the Nobel Prize-winning folk legend.

'A NICE LITTLE HOLIDAY'

On a warm Friday night at the pool at Harrah’s last month, a few people who came for P!nk on Thursday stayed for the weekend. The tropical oasis hosts its Pool After Dark for adults with lounge grooves and bikini-clad servers dolling out creative sips. The crowd of 20-, 30- and 40-somethings soaking in the pool and hot tubs is one of the reasons Live Nation has been investing in new concerts, and bringing big acts to A.C.

“Everyone is really appreciative of the people we bring down here for the beach concerts,” says Gordon. “Restaurant and bar owners cannot thank me enough.”

Gordon also says that he’s personally found himself exploring the city more since booking these shows. For the P!nk show, he invited friends from Boston to check out the music and the food scene. They stopped by Carmine’s, The Old Homestead and the stores in the Quarter, destinations that have admittedly been overshadowed by bad news about casino closures and crime.

As Gordon gets ready this week for the final show of the season, Ruff Ryders and Friends on Aug. 3, he’s betting on a new kind of travel experience, one that is shorter, but packs more of a multifaceted experience into just a few days in A.C. If he’s right, Atlantic City could experience a turnaround, and become a getaway for city folks from Philly, D.C. and New York.

“People have a lot less time to spend taking two weeks off in the summer,” he says. “But taking a few days off to a beach that’s an hour away, and having the ancillary stuff available, well, that’s a nice little holiday.”

NoneHarrison Brink/Live Nation

P!nk soars over the crowd during her A.C. concert.

According to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, more people visit A.C. by car than by bus, train or air combined, suggesting that most of the tourists spending their money at local businesses are coming from within a driving distance of one, two or maybe three hours away – places like Philadelphia and New York. Convention and trade shows also account for an increase in traffic where there are sometimes decreases in other areas, like gambling. Despite some otherwise grim revelations from the sales barometer, sporting and entertainment events actually show a big upswing in attendance, especially in places like Boardwalk Hall and hotel venues.

“The arrows go up,” says Gordon, “judging from all the response we’ve gotten from the concert series, either on the beach or Boardwalk Hall.”

The night that P!nk played the boardwalk, local Facebook feeds were populated with pictures and videos from the show. These posts came from families with kids, as well as tweens and LGBT fans of all ages and genders. The sheer diversity of these social media posts might have made someone sitting in Philly feel like everyone they knew was in A.C. that night. A.C. looked like the place to be.

Lee admits that even though his parents rent a house in A.C., he often stays in Wildwood or Ocean City. But earlier this year he attended a promotional trip that may have swayed his opinion of his old stomping grounds, even just a little bit.

“I really am happy they have the outlets,” says Lee. “I love going there.” But he worries that ultimately the city surrounding the attractions will need a shot in the arm before Atlantic City will ever make a full recovery from losses and image problems that continue to plague it.

It certainly doesn’t help when beaches in A.C. are closed, as they were last month because of high-bacteria counts, or when shore points are off limits because of budget disagreements in Trenton (remember all of those memes with Gov. Christie in his beach chair?). It’s not a great look for the Garden State.

REBUILDING THE BOARDWALK

No one assumes that a few shows or shopping will fix the high unemployment, crime and a so-called image problem overnight, but Gordon and other promoters seem to think it can create a valuable momentum. By getting someone to come to a show, to eat a meal, to patronize a retailer and maybe even stay overnight, the tourist experience in Atlantic City can evolve from what it once was (picture chain-smoking senior citizens propped at slot machines) to a fun, sexy nightlife destination, a place to catch a show or a wave.

Unlike Vegas, A.C. has the shore – a beachfront that has charmed generations for good reason. It also has the Borgata, a destination that can easily compete with the Vegas experience without traveling across the country. There’s also the gay-friendly vibe at the Rainbow Room and beyond (did you know A.C. elected one of the only openly gay mayors in the country?). The tourist bureau has also begun marketing A.C. within a bigger, broader package of the Jersey shore, designed to attract families and young adults.

The A.C. boardwalk is also expanding. The new section, which is currently under construction, will add boards past the former Revel to The Ocean apartments. The goal is presumably to attract bigger and better development projects that will employ people and attract tourists, like health-conscious (read: young) joggers, walkers and cyclists.

In a statement, Mayor Don Guardian said, “The reconstruction of this section of the Boardwalk has been talked about for decades.” But it’s finally happening. He also confirmed that plans are in the works to rebuild the boardwalk beyond Oriental Avenue. The added space could make room for more events, or even expand on already popular ones, like the Atlantic City Air Show.

NoneSteve Erle/Live Nation

DREAMCAR performing during the Atlantic City BeachFest Concert Series.

Gordon confirms that Live Nation’s summer concert series, also one of the biggest events for the city, has been so successful that it will continue next year. The tourist bureau, known for its “Do AC” campaign, has been working just in time to promote the artsy side of the beach resort, a place where you can learn about African American heritage and enjoy the ballet while also taking in more than 1,000 D.J. sets, 84 headliner concerts, two beach dances or just stop by any number of beach bars.

The Ruff Ryders 20th Anniversary Tour on Thursday will bring together hip-hop legends DMX, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Fat Joe, The LOX and Drag-On in what will be the Ruff Ryders’ first East Coast appearance since the reunion tour earlier in the year.

“I’m optimistic,” says Gordon, “Because I see the response from fans.”