Many airlines have tried — and failed — over the past decade to make a profit flying to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Since becoming governor in 2010, Chris Christie has waged a very public campaign, at taxpayers’ expense, to “save” the seaside resort.
United Airlines flights from Chicago and Houston were part of that plan.
The South Jersey Transportation Authority, which owns the airport, had been losing money on it for years. The authority had been using $3 million annually from toll revenues from its Atlantic City Expressway to support the airport’s $15 million yearly budget.
In July 2013, the Christie-controlled authority agreed to pay the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey $500,000 annually for 15 years to operate the airport, as well as market it and bring in new flights. A few months later, in November, United announced that it would start flying to Atlantic City.
While airlines open new routes all the time, they usually inform the public with a simple press release. But Atlantic City was different.
United’s then-CEO, Jeff Smisek, flew in to join Christie for a press conference where he thanked the governor “for fostering a business-friendly climate” and spoke about how the two daily flights to Atlantic City “will drive business, tourism and economic development throughout the southern part of the state.”
However, the big announcement didn’t take place at the Atlantic City airport or on the fabled Atlantic City Boardwalk. Instead, the event was held 110 miles to the north, at United’s terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport.
It was much fanfare for flights that — on their best days — would bring only a combined 100 passengers to New Jersey, hardly enough to revitalize the tourism and gambling industries.
But the plan had an enthusiastic cheerleader in a governor eager for any development — no matter how small — that could be seen as a victory in his efforts to turn around Atlantic City.
During his tenure, the governor has fought unsuccessfully to overturn a federal ban on legalized sports betting in all but four states, an effort that has cost taxpayers several million dollars so far. He committed the state to tax incentives that helped convince Wall Street to provide the final $1 billion needed to finish the $2.4 billion Revel casino, which shut its doors after two years without ever having turned a profit. And the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority — a group with 14 of its 17 voting members appointed by Christie— provided $836,145 that was ultimately spent on marketing Atlantic City in Chicago and Houston.
None of that has helped. Last year, four of the city’s 12 casinos closed, costing 8,000 workers their jobs. Casino revenue has fallen from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $2.74 billion last year.
Associated Press writers David Porter in Newark, New Jersey, Josh Cornfield and Michael Catalini in Trenton, New Jersey, and AP researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this story.
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org