In 1976 Atlantic City, New Jersey, took a fateful step in an effort to be more like Las Vegas. It legalized casino gambling in hopes that casinos would breathe new life into a city that had lost much of its appeal as a resort across the 20th century. By the 1990s, in contrast, the ever successful southern Nevada gambling mecca seemed to have wrung all it could from gaming. Its promoters recast it as a family entertainment destination to try to counter expected impacts from so many new gambling venues in other states. A decade later, Las Vegas reasserted its image as an adult playground with the now famous line “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.”

Atlantic City

Taj Mahal and Showboat Casino with Revel (now open) rising to the right in 2011. Photo by Shinya Suzuki on Flickr

Now the United States’ two most famous gambling destinations have undertaken their latest ploys to refresh their image. Ever behind the curve, Atlantic City is trying to project a new image as a family-fun destination, much as Las Vegas did two decades ago. As the Washington Post reports, Atlantic City’s new Revel resort may have a casino, but it emphasizes the very things that made the Jersey Shore resort city famous in the first place – entertainment, dining, and the beach. The casinos, as American Tourism contributor Bryant Simon argues, turned their back on the city and the beach in an effort to ensnare tourists and keep them close to the slots and the tables. Atlantic City tourism promoters too seem to have figured out that casinos may bring in lots of people and money but still do little to remake the sagging city itself. Revel fits squarely within the city’s efforts to convince travelers that the Boardwalk is a safe and exciting place to see and be seen, just as it was in the early 20th century – and convince casinos to become more well-rounded resorts.

Even as Atlantic City moves in a direction that Las Vegas was going twenty years ago, Las Vegas, in its typical fashion, is two steps ahead. Despite its recommitment to its gambling image, Las Vegas is also lining up behind a new piper: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. The Las Vegas-based web-firm startup master, who succeeded in selling companies to Microsoft and Amazon, is now trying to sell a new vision for Las Vegas – the Downtown Project. With a third of the billion dollars of his own seed money, Hsieh is trying to woo more startups to Vegas by investing heavily in the arts, public education, small businesses, and downtown residential development. Hsieh calls for Las Vegas to become “the most community-focused large city in the world.” And, if all of the above isn’t sufficiently unconventional, Hsieh, who notes that urban revitalization usually involves repurposing something Las Vegas doesn’t have – “vacant, crumbling buildings” – plans to repurpose shipping containers as spaces for business incubators. Moving in tandem with Hsieh is the city’s public-private partnership to create Symphony Park, billed as Las Vegas’s first modern city neighborhood. Anchored by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, Symphony Park, if it meets its creators’ aspirations, promises to complicate what has up to now been a simplistic image of Las Vegas as tourist town.

Glitter Gulch

Neon signs in downtown Las Vegas. Photo by David Baxandale on Flickr

It’s unclear whether Atlantic City can rekindle its pre-casino excitement outside the casinos or if Las Vegas can grow a “real” downtown, but clearly this is an interesting time as different cities take different approaches – either expanding their reliance on tourism or taking steps to diversify away from tourism dependence – to introduce the excitement of the city.