Atlantic City ramps up its LGBT marketing

Posted: June 18, 2014

ATLANTIC CITY - In a quest to get its historically gay vibe back, Atlantic City's first openly gay mayor on Monday designated an official gay beach.

It's a familiar spot: Park Place, the site of the original gay beach in Atlantic City, the iconic second-most-valuable spot on the Monopoly board, and, now, a beach with a rainbow flag flying at its entrance off the Boardwalk.

"It represents Atlantic City coming of age," Mayor Don Guardian, 61, said after placing the rainbow flag on the wooden archway. "Atlantic City's been gay-friendly for a long time. We just had to welcome them back."

With the gaming industry struggling, Atlantic City seemed more than ready to make a case for its gay moment in the sun.

Three major LGBT events - Sandblast, an Asbury Park festival export; Miss'd America, a drag pageant; and StandOut, a gay business expo - are coming to town this year.

"You know, back in the 1960s, long before Stonewall in New York, long before Provincetown, Rehoboth, and Fort Lauderdale, Atlantic City was a mecca for the LGBT community," said Rich Helfant, president of the Greater Atlantic City GLBT Alliance.

Back before casinos, gays crowded New York Avenue bars, created rituals around the Miss America pageant, and lived and summered in and around Snake Alley, a winding series of side streets that connects New York Avenue and Kentucky Avenue in the city's northern section.

Atlantic City and its casinos and hotels have stepped up targeted marketing to gay and lesbian tourists in recent years and especially since gay marriage was legalized last fall in New Jersey.

On Monday, casino executives, LGBT organizers, and marketing officials joined to promote the city to a tourism segment that has had dramatic economic and revitalization impact elsewhere.

"They're looking at the gay dollars," said Mortimer Spreng, a longtime gay resident and a past Miss'd America. "Money talks."

The beach in front of the Claridge Hotel was long known as the gay beach in Atlantic City - for "obvious reasons," Guardian said Monday (not least of them the phallic architecture of the Claridge).

But over the years, the vibrant gay community all but vanished (although Guardian, a longtime resident, stayed). Just one gay bar remains in town. Some blamed the advent of casinos, others the general decline of Atlantic City, and some pointed to AIDS as reasons.

Jeff Guaracino, a marketing specialist with the Atlantic City Alliance, a casino-funded marketing agency, said the hope is the LGBT community will "not only visit Atlantic City, but also open businesses here and also buy primary and secondary homes in Atlantic City."

A survey commissioned by the alliance found that the city, despite its storied gay history, was not viewed as especially LGBT-friendly, he said.

"People just want to know where are the gay people," Guaracino said. "It's like a gay diaspora. We're all around; we just want to know where everyone is. Plus, people think gays go to the next great place. What happened in Asbury Park could happen here."

This year, several of the city's casinos and hotels are marketing themselves under Pride 2014 themes, including Borgata and its Water Club, and Caesars, which sponsored a Win a Wedding promotion after gay marriage was legalized. The newly repositioned Claridge also has been directing marketing toward the gay and lesbian tourism market and is the official host of Sandblast Weekend.

Sandblast, from July 18 to 20, previously had been held in Asbury Park, where the LGBT population bought up properties and revived the resort.

The weekend includes a seven-hour Beach Party on Saturday, July 19, at Bungalow Beach at California Avenue, and various other events at casinos and hotels around the resort, including "Lez Volley" beach volleyball tournament near Revel, a Women's WHITE party at Mixx at Borgata, a Riptide Pool Party at Harrah's, and an underwear party after midnight Friday into Saturday at the Claridge.

Borgata also is sponsoring a women's gaming event, though those in the gay community have not been known to be big gamblers, according to surveys.

Brad Hurtado, Sandblast executive producer and an early pioneer in Asbury Park's gay transformation, promised "dramatic" impact from up to 2,000 people and a further reach of 100,000.

"They're already talking about it in Rehoboth," he said.

Hurtado said he had not arranged for a real estate tour, as was done in Asbury, but he welcomed interest from Realtors. Guardian assured him there was lots of potential in town: "If you're looking for fixer-uppers, we have a whole lot of them - enough for every gay couple and their families."

Also returning to Atlantic City will be the Miss'd America pageant, a drag event that was the focus of the gay community for many years. It will take place at Harrah's on Sept. 28. The StandOut LGBT Expo, a gay business-to-business networking weekend, is scheduled for Sept. 26 to 28.

On the Park Place beach Monday afternoon, David Ocasio, 21, of South Philadelphia, and his girlfriend, Alexandra Mosoeanu, 20, of Northeast Philadelphia, were surprised to hear they were on a historically and now officially gay-friendly beach.

"I'm totally OK with that," Mosoeanu said. "As long as they're not forcing anybody."

Ocasio himself represented an elusive - and promising - young demographic for the struggling seashore resort.

He said he has been coming to the beaches in Atlantic City for the last few years and had tried to convince older siblings that their image of the city's beaches as "dirty, smoky," is out of date.

"It's clean; it's friendly; it's close," he said. "It's 45 minutes away."

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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