More than a year ago, Revel, the last casino to be built in Atlantic City in nine years, opened its doors to the public. At the time, Revel’s future seemed rosy: Its first weekend saw Beyonce’s triumphant return to the stage after giving birth to her daughter Blue Ivy, and revenue forecasts—albeit based on nothing but conjecture—were positive. Even Michelle Obama and her daughters showed up for the opening festivities. In fact, Revel’s appearance on the shore was said to sound the death knell for Atlantic City’s smaller casinos, which had been having problems generating revenue.
But in the 12 months since its illustrious debut, Revel has lagged behind, coming in 11th place out of 12 in terms of revenue in a ranking of Atlantic City’s casinos. It has now filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
A big part of Revel’s downfall can be blamed on the economy. Soon after building on the project began, in 2007, the recession hit hard. Things were looking so bad that in 2010 Morgan Stanley, the project’s initial backer, withdrew financing, resulting in a nearly billion-dollar loss and halting construction of the project.
At this point Revel already stood at 719 feet—the tallest structure in Atlantic City, and the second tallest in New Jersey. The abandoned project became a looming reminder of Atlantic City’s fiscal uncertainty. Only with the help of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose government offered $260 million in tax incentives, and the securing of another billion dollars from other financers, did work on Revel begin again in 2011.
Christie placed a large emphasis on Revel as a catalyst for change in Atlantic City. Not only would the casino be in a largely undeveloped district of the city, but it would also be less a place of gambling than a full-blown lifestyle resort, like the hot spots in Las Vegas. As a result, the Revel is monstrous: Its 6.8 million square feet hold 1,898 hotel rooms, 14 restaurants, a 31,000 square-foot spa, multiple shops, two concert venues, two nightclubs, and 130,000 square feet of gambling floor.
But it lacks two key features of most casinos: a gambling floor in which smoking is allowed, and a cheap buffet option for dining. The designers of Revel also broke with typical casino design principles by showcasing views of the ocean, as well as using natural light to illuminate the gambling floors. A typical casino is a hot bed of artificial lighting designed to never change allowing gamblers to forget about time and the natural progression of the day, leading to marathon sessions of betting. These parts of the design, while somewhat humanizing, have proved unsuccessful in the only part of the project that matters at this point: generating revenue.
The state of New Jersey, the financiers of the Revel, and the casino’s architects all took risks on this project. They had hoped the Revel would usher in a new luxury era in Atlantic City. But some habits—and traditions—die hard. In the end, what most AC visitors want is to smoke while gambling, eat cheap buffet food, and forget that there’s an ocean (or any life really) outside the casino.
The Revel is a hulking reminder of big dreams going wrong and gambles not paying out. No amount of spin can change its dismal performance. City planners and state legislators looking to casinos as sure ways of generating revenue should take note of this cautionary tale.