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Attacks leave casinos empty

| Sunday, Nov. 18, 2001

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Dropping quarters into a slot machine is one thing. But gamblers like Antoinette Lee are looking at risk a little differently these days, and casinos are suffering as a result.

Lee, a 40-year-old housekeeper from Philadelphia, has stopped making her weekly bus trip to Atlantic City since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She's only been once because she sees the trip itself as a gamble.

''I'm afraid of traveling, and you never know if they might try to hit the casino or not. I'm just afraid,'' she said.

It was seven weeks before she got up the nerve to go to Bally's Park Place. When she did, she played for three hours and went home instead of staying for the night. She wanted to save her money to buy water, canned goods and blankets for a home survival kit she's organizing.

''It's still in the back of my mind,'' she said of the attacks. ''It's so tragic and so close to home, it scared the hell out of me,'' Lee said.

Like many gamblers, Lee is willing to take risks - but only to a point.

To some, that point has followed the terrorist attacks, the fighting in Afghanistan and anthrax scares. Leery of flying, many people canceled planned trips to Las Vegas, triggering 15,000 layoffs and losses for Park Place Entertainment Corp., MGM Mirage Inc. and other casino companies.

Other gambling resorts are hurting, too: Baton Rouge, La., riverboats reported a 13.4 percent decline in the amount won from gamblers in September. The Treasure Chest riverboat casino in Kenner, La., laid off 80 employees at the end of October, in part because of decreased attendance since the attacks. And the Beau Rivage casino, in Biloxi, Miss., laid off 340 workers.

For the month of September, Atlantic City casino revenue was off 6.3 percent. October was a little easier, with revenues down only 1.7 percent from a year ago.

But many people are noticing that the casinos are emptier on weekdays since the attacks.

''I had seven people on my bus today. Seven!'' said Coach USA bus driver Fannie Hamer, 48, whose Fishkill, N.Y.,-to-Atlantic City weekday run normally has 40 or more. ''They're scared to come. I hear people say they're afraid someone's going to blow up the casino. That or they're afraid of bridges now.''

For Tracey Brennan, it's fear of more attacks.

Brennan, 30, of Staten Island, N.Y., drives to Atlantic City two or three times a month to play roulette at Resorts Atlantic City. But she hasn't come since the attacks.

''I feel like they don't know when something is going to happen again, or when. If something does happen, I want to be home,'' she said.

Not all gamblers are staying away - John Borisuck, 68, of Green Point, N.Y., hasn't stopped making his weekly bus trip to the Wild, Wild West casino at Bally's Park Place.

''You have to carry on with your normal life,'' he said, taking a break from a slot machine. ''Besides, I think they're after government personnel, not casinos.''

Illinois' nine riverboat casinos have seen no downturn since Sept. 11, according to Susan Gouinlock, executive director of the Illinois Casino Gaming Association.

''We do attribute that to the fact that both our tourists and our local audience are usually driving, not flying,'' Gouinlock said.

Some gamblers are just changing their destination.

Dolores Provenzano, 62, of Deer Park, N.Y., and friend Anna Parnese, 69, of Queens, N.Y., were scheduled to fly to Las Vegas recently for a three-day gambling junket. Instead, they drove to Atlantic City because they didn't want to get on a plane. They weren't dying to gamble, but they said a casino is great for escapism.

''When you're playing a slot, you just close your mind to everything else,'' said Provenzano, waiting for her car at the valet parking area of Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino.

In the past, the casino industry sometimes seemed recession-proof. In good times, gamblers had plenty of disposable income. In bad times, they dug deeper to find it because they needed a diversion more. But the present slowdown has challenged that theory.

''Normally, people say they forget their aches and pains and problems once they enter a casino,'' said John Alcamo, a veteran gambler and author of ''Casino Gambling: Behind the Tables.'' ''But this might be too big a pain to escape, unfortunately.''

Park Place Entertainment Corp. posted a $100 million third-quarter loss, blaming it on a drop in visitation to its Nevada casinos, where cash flow was down 50 percent.

While optimistic about a recovery, Park Place Chairman Thomas Gallagher told Wall Street analysts recently the market is unpredictable.

''We're not out of this yet,'' Gallagher said. ''As long as we continue to have announcements out of Washington about this alert or that alert, this is going to continue to be a very tricky business.''

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