Will 2017 be better for Atlantic City than 2016?
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian did not mince words in looking back over the past year.
"I'm so glad 2016 is over," he said. "2016 hit bottom for Atlantic City."
But will 2017 be much better?
It could be, if several things go the city's way.
The former Revel casino plans to reopen in the spring as the renamed 'Ten' resort. A long-promised giant Ferris wheel should arrive on the Boardwalk near the famous Steel Pier, and the seven surviving casinos should continue to see their finances stabilize with less local competition and no in-state competitors looming in the northern part of the state for at least the next few years.
And a project combining a new campus for Stockton University and new corporate headquarters for a natural gas company should be nearing completion by year's end, paving the way for new life and economic activity near the former Bader Field airport site.
But Atlantic City starts the year firmly under the state's thumb, with an overseer appointed by Republic Governor Chris Christie as part of a takeover that can seize most of the city's assets and major decision-making power. Multimillion-dollar casino tax appeals still have to be dealt with, another $20 million has to be cut from the city budget, and still more litigation from Revel owner Glenn Straub over licensing could tie up that project indefinitely.
Some potential wild cards include whether New Jersey can win its quixotic battle against a law that limits sports betting to just four states; whether incoming president (and former Atlantic City casino owner) Donald Trump nudges Congress to act for or against Internet gambling, which has been one of the few bright spots in New Jersey's gambling market; and whether state lawmakers move forward with back-door plans to allow slot machines at New Jersey racetracks, following the defeat of a statewide ballot question asking whether to authorise two new casinos in north Jersey.
"It obviously was a very positive thing that the voters did in the November referendum, sending a clear message to Trenton that they don't want casino gambling outside Atlantic City," said Tony Rodio, president of Tropicana Entertainment. "The biggest potential challenge is we've got to keep our eye on efforts to expand gaming within our own state."
He predicted that the surviving seven casinos could show a revenue increase for the first time in 10 years, back when there were 12 of them.
The Trump Taj Mahal casino, which Trump opened in 1990 but lost control of in a casino bankruptcy, was shut down in October by billionaire investor and soon-to-be Trump adviser Carl Icahn, following a bruising strike over whether union members should have their health insurance and pension benefits restored.
Whether Icahn tries to reopen the Taj in the spring - with or without a union contract - is a big unknown for Atlantic City in 2017. Rodio, whose company managed the Taj for Icahn, would not comment on any future plans for it. Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union has said it will instantly resume its strike if Icahn tries to reopen the Taj as a non-union facility.
Atlantic City will elect a mayor in 2017. Guardian, a Republican, says he's running again, but there should be no shortage of foes in both parties for an election in which the state takeover and the casino meltdowns could dominate.
Straub has been in court frequently since buying the former Revel from bankruptcy court in April 2015, wrangling with utilities, tenants, and city and state officials. He's now suing the state Casino Control Commission over what level of licence he needs before Revel can reopen as Ten. The commission could consider the matter at its January 11 meeting.
If the commission rules in his favour, Straub said Ten could see a "soft opening" by February 20, with a grand opening on April 1.
Of course, Straub insisted, against all evidence, that the resort would reopen last June, so any projected opening dates should not be carved in stone.