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Mayor: Atlantic City shift from gambling to other attractions will be painful but do-able

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - Top New Jersey officials may be moving toward letting voters decide whether to expand casino gambling beyond Atlantic City a few years earlier than expected.

But Atlantic City's mayor sounds like he's already there — and confident others will get used to a redesign of the East Coast gambling spot.

Mayor Don Guardian says Atlantic City is in the midst of a painful switch from a gambling-centric resort to one where betting is only one of many things to do.

"Atlantic City is a destination in transition; there can be no doubt that significant changes are beginning to take hold," he told reporters Thursday on a conference call with national media outlets to promote tourism in his city.

"We will endure the pain that comes with transitioning from an economy overly reliant on a single industry," he said. "We know there are growing pains; they will diminish over time."

Guardian said he believes top elected officials still strongly support the city, and will give it the full five-year turnaround time — through Feb. 2016 — that Gov. Chris Christie promised before considering expanding gambling to the northern New Jersey Meadowlands and elsewhere.

But within the last week, State Senate President Steve Sweeney has suggested a voter referendum in 2015 on expanding casino gambling beyond Atlantic City, and Christie has said he'd at least talk about it with Sweeney.

Legislators from northern New Jersey have long said a casino in the East Rutherford Meadowlands sports complex, where the NFL's Jets and Giants play their home games, would be among the most successful in the world. On Wednesday, a venture capitalist floated a plan to build a $4.6 billion casino in Jersey City, not far away.

The news for Atlantic City's casino industry has been mostly bad this year: The Atlantic Club shut down in January, taken down by two rivals, stripped for parts, and shuttered. Revel Casino Hotel is back in bankruptcy court for the second time in as many years and says it might shut down this summer if a buyer can't be found. And Caesars Entertainment says it will close the still-profitable Showboat Casino Hotel Aug. 31 to reduce the amount of casinos in the oversaturated Atlantic City market.

Guardian and city tourism and marketing officials say Atlantic City's non-gambling revenues have increased by $160 million over the last two years, and are approaching $1 billion annually, even as casino revenue continues to plunge. Luxury tax receipts have been climbing in recent years, as have sales of food and entertainment tickets, and retail outlet transactions.

Caesars Entertainment is building a new $126 million convention centre in the Marina District to attract more convention and meeting business — another key part of Atlantic City's makeover.

"You've got to look at my city as a book," Guardian said. "The chapter on gaming is closing. I'd like you to find a mile of beach anywhere from Cape Cod to Key West that has the amount of investment that Atlantic City has."

Unlike many here, including thousands of casino workers who have lost or could soon lose their jobs, Guardian embraces the shift from a casino mecca to a destination with more diverse offerings. He says the market will eventually set the proper number of casinos here.

"It's healthy," Guardian said. "It's the right way."

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

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