COLUMN: From Main Street to the Boardwalk

Harry Caines contributes a weekly column to CacheValleyDaily.com. His column is a work of opinion, and does not reflect the views of Cache Valley Daily, the Cache Valley Media Group, or its employees.

<em>“Of Atlantic City, it may be written: Better it shouldn’t have happened…”</em>

— Theodore White, American historian.

I am prone to nostalgia and saccharine sentimentality. I look back at my misspent youth with a certain wonder at the good times I had. And when I tell my waggish anecdotes about my roguish younger self, most of these tales usually find me somewhere close to the Jersey Shore.

In particular, I always held a high opinion of Atlantic City. Barely over an hour’s drive from Philadelphia (with traffic, and there is ALWAYS traffic), Atlantic City was once the jewel of the New Jersey shoreline. I am old enough to remember how dilapidated the town had become in the 70’s. As I grew in the 80’s, so did Atlantic City with the indomitable rise of casino gambling.

Las Vegas or Atlantic City. That was it…outside of a friendly card game in your neighbor’s garage. Choose.

AC, as we locals call it, was beating Vegas in many areas back then. The only reason why the inner-city did not flourish from the bounty of riches that was pouring into that town was because the duly elected politicians coupled with most of the businesses and unions were firmly in the pocket of the South Philadelphia La Cosa Nostra.

Things change. Casinos are everywhere now—well, not everywhere! And Atlantic City did not adapt quickly enough to the changing landscape. Much like newspapers, Atlantic City held on to the premise that devotion and tradition would be enough to pay the bills. No one needs to buy buggy whips anymore. And that is Capitalism 101.

The end of summer is always depressing for those who love visiting, or work at the Jersey Shore. But this year, for Atlantic City, there is a fatalistic sense of doom that accompanies this upcoming Labor Day weekend. Three casinos in AC will shut their doors in the next month. Included in those is the Revel, a two billion dollar failure after just two years in operation.

In a month’s time, an estimate 8,000 workers will have lost their jobs; and, AC could be out of nearly $2 billion in property taxes. Like the Phoenix of ancient mythology, Atlantic City will once again need to rise from the ashes of its own destruction.

There are not many parallels that can be drawn between Atlantic City, New Jersey and Logan, Utah. At the risk of being called a megalomaniac, I might be the strongest tie between these two towns. I have logged many miles walking both the Boardwalk (yes, it is indeed a proper noun) and Logan’s own Main Street. And it is my walks that I find Logan might want to pay heed to the cataclysmic events happening in a resort town 2,200 miles away.

When I walk through the heart of Logan—specifically, Main Street between Center Street and 1st North—what I see is a disturbing amount of empty store fronts. One year ago, if memory serves me right, every store on that block was occupied. Successful? Obviously not, but a business was in every lot. Not now.

I have scribed previous columns where I discuss the failure of businesses in Cache Valley. This argument is a beaten path. I revisit this subject now because I can think of nothing more shameful, nor a higher priority for the elected officials representing Logan, than to discuss how the dead center of town is noticeably dead.

I am aware that some will remind me that new businesses are opening up throughout the valley. But what are most of them? Fast food chain restaurants. I know Herberger’s is opening soon—but, will they succeed? And aren’t they just filling a space left by numerous other chain department stores that failed to make a profit here?

I believe that Logan—and by extension, Cache Valley—is living on borrowed time regarding its infrastructure and its economic sustainability. I am not asserting that Logan will be like Atlantic City one day. I am suggesting that you get to be where AC is by not thinking forward.

My arguments for why the center of Logan is filled with abandoned spaces is an untasty stew of fixable problems. Most of the residents here do not work high-paying jobs. Chains will not move into small work retail spaces–not when the municipal zoning boards are gleefully handing out commercial permits like they were free samples at Sam’s Club. Small businesses are burdened with local, state and federal regulations which are mind-numbingly arcane and arduous. People shop online. Or, people get in their car and take their money to Ogden or Salt Lake City. Why? because there or more things to do there.

In Logan, downtown is downturned town.

I admit I take my money elsewhere when I can. This leads me to a bigger point of contention. I often comment on the empty business–mostly former restaurants–that are between 18th and 25th North on Main Street. It is a graveyard of failed ventures. The reason I see this often enough is that I drive by that area on my way to Idaho to give the Gem State my money.

Yes, this is indeed another “beer and Powerball” polemical rant. Cache Valley can continue to be a theocracy that expects Mormon scriptures to rule its residents to amicable ends, or it can generate revenue. One or the other; not both. Decide.

But think about this: If Utah, or even just Cache County, sold full potency beer, allowed for the alleviation of its farcically stifling liquor laws, legalized the selling of lottery tickets. removed the stigma that exists regarding Sunday business and was generally less hostile towards just about anything new and scary, then I would not suggest that this county could never be the next Atlantic City.

Do you know who could be the next Atlantic City if all of those things came to fruition? Franklin County, Idaho.

The economic sustainability of Logan and the surrounding municipalities is tenuous. We are building too many houses without the benefit of good paying, career building jobs being readily available to the influx of new residents. I have recently considered leaving Cache Valley for a place where I can make money and have a chance to succeed as far as ambition and talent can take me. I remember looking for work in Atlantic City in the mid-90’s wondering if it was a smart move. Other areas were legalizing gambling at the time. AC lacked innovation, foresight and bold politicians willing to take chances. I might only work a dead end job where I was worthless to my employers if I took a job in AC.

Two decades later, I am regurgitating that very same argument. Except now I am talking about Logan, Utah. The two towns may be more similar than a first glance suggests.

(WRITER’S NOTE)

This is the first time I have added a postscript to my column. There is a film I wished to discuss which I did not think fit into my thesis. I add it here so that my readers (all six of you) may know about it.

There is a film from 1980 entitled “Atlantic City”. It stars Burt Lancaster as an aging mob gofer who pretends to be a big shot to impress his next door neighbor, played by the stunningly beautiful Susan Sarandon. The two get in over their heads when they become the targets of two drug pushing goons.

You should watch the film for the flawless acting and the script, which has a blisteringly dry humor to it. I currently rank it at number 52 on the “Harry’s Greatest Films of All Time” list.

But if you watch the film, notice how the neighborhoods around the rising casinos are run down and dispiritingly vacant. The film talks about the hope that Atlantic City will one day be a Utopian metropolis. It is almost eerie watching it knowing what AC is going through right now.

When you watch it, ask yourself if any town, even Logan, is really immune to that kind of economic ruination. Your answer to that question may surprise you.

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