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Pain of Atlantic City casino closings far-reaching

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Photo - FILE - This Feb. 29, 2012 file photo shows the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, left back, in Atlantic City, N.J. The rapid disintegration of Atlantic City's casino market might be an early indicator of what could happen in other parts of the country that have too many casinos and not enough gamblers. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
FILE - This Feb. 29, 2012 file photo shows the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and Caesars Atlantic City Hotel and Casino, left back, in Atlantic City, N.J. The rapid disintegration of Atlantic City's casino market might be an early indicator of what could happen in other parts of the country that have too many casinos and not enough gamblers. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Yomary Blanco cleans rooms at Trump Plaza, one of three Atlantic City casinos that could shut down by September. Her husband works the buffet at the Showboat, which is scheduled to close on Aug. 31.

With two young daughters, a mortgage, no savings and no obvious plan B, the couple is afraid of what the future holds.

"I'm worried; it's a really stressful situation right now," she said. "A lot of my co-workers are in shock. They can't believe this is really happening."

The pain of a sudden spasm of casino contraction in what was once the nation's second-largest gambling market will hurt not only families like Blanco's. It will also hurt small businesses like the seafood company in neighboring Pleasantville that sells lobsters to the casinos, the pizza shop in the shadow of Revel and the beauty parlor where dealers and cocktail waitresses get their hair done.

The housing market could suffer as homes are foreclosed on, or sold for less than they're worth. Taxes could rise and services decline in Atlantic City, where 60 percent of the budget comes from casino taxes; the city plans to cut $10 million from its budget in each of the next four years to make up for lost casino money.

And New Jersey's programs for senior citizens and the disabled, which provide bus rides to and from the supermarket or doctor's office and help with the cost of prescription drugs, have already been cut back as casino tax collections plunge, and could shrink yet again.

In January, the Atlantic Club closed, taken down by two rivals in a bankruptcy court auction, stripped for parts and shuttered. The Showboat will close on Aug. 31 and Trump Plaza on Sept. 16, barring some last-minute deal to save one or both of them. Revel, which was hailed as a potential savior of Atlantic City when it opened a little over two years ago, says it will close if a buyer does not emerge from a bankruptcy auction in August.

That would put nearly 8,000 workers — about a quarter of the city's casino workforce — on the street.

The casino industry has had a mixed legacy — it hasn't resulted in the wholesale community improvements some had projected after it opened in 1978, and Atlantic City has continued to grapple with crime. But it has indisputably made a huge difference in the city's coffers and in job opportunities, employing more than 45,000 people at the industry's peak.

Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union, plans to seek potential buyers for the three casinos and pledges "flexibility and cooperation" in contract talks. He is also rallying political and public support against the closings, vowing, "we are not taking this lying down."

Blanco, who has cleaned rooms at Trump Plaza for 18 years, is already preparing for the possibility of her job and that of her husband disappearing within weeks. First to go will be the Catholic school her 7-year-old daughter now attends.

"I don't know how I'm going to explain that to her," Blanco said.

Donald Moliver, dean of Leon Hess Business School at Monmouth University, said the casino closings will have a ripple effect on the local and regional economy as less income is injected into it. He predicted mortgage delinquencies will rise, and government tax collections will fall.

Since 2006, right before the first Pennsylvania casino opened, the amount of taxes New Jersey has collected from casinos at an 8 percent rate has fallen from $413 million to $207 million this year.

The contraction of the casino market could result in the shift of more of the tax burden from casinos onto Atlantic City homeowners. Mayor Don Guardian took office in January promising voters "a root canal" in dealing with the city's troubled finances. In addition to $40 million in budget cuts over the next four years, the city plans a revaluation that is expected to shift some of the tax burden from casinos, which had been overvalued, onto homes, which have been undervalued.

Local businesses will suffer as well.

Michael Hauke, owner of Tony Boloney's pizza & sandwich restaurant near Revel, has invested $700,000 in the business over the past five years.

"The less casinos nearby, the less people we have walk into the store," he said. "The troubling thing for us is we have customers that are just gone. They move to Delaware or Maryland or Rhode Island to work in a casino there because it dried up here."

Greg Goff's Casino Lobster company sells to the gambling halls; last week, he started soliciting out-of-state restaurants to make up for lost business.

"You have three fewer casinos, that's 30 percent less, and it's 30 percent off of something that was already down," he said. "This ain't the good ol' days."

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Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC

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