ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - Revenue and employment sank at the nation's commercial casinos for the second straight year in 2009 as consumers kept tight hold of their wallets during the recession and remained cautious at slot machines and gambling tables.
The American Gaming Association said Thursday that casino revenue declined 5.5 percent nationwide in 2009 to $30.74 billion. Commercial casinos' payments to state and local governments fell 1.6 percent in 2009 to $5.59 billion.
"I don't think there's any way to sugarcoat it: The past year was tough," said Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the trade group's president. "People had less money to spend on our products.
"People have tighter budgets than they had a few years ago," he added. "Until people go back to work, businesses that depend on discretionary income are going to continue to struggle."
The group found that 48 percent of all gamblers set a budget of less than $100 last year, up from 45 percent in 2008.
The association, which did not report on tribal casinos, found that casino visitors equaled more than a quarter of the United States population last year, but they spent less and risked less while they were there.
Owen O'Malley, a Bronx, N.Y., resident visiting Atlantic City Wednesday, sees the difference in less-crowded gambling tables and a much easier time settling down in front of a slot machine.
"You can see for yourself that the business is just not there," he said. "It's definitely less crowded. It's easier to find a table nowadays."
Atlantic City, the nation's second-largest gambling market after Las Vegas, was the epicenter of the casino industry's woes in 2009. Revenue there fell 13.2 percent from 2008.
New Jersey was for years the only state besides Nevada with legal casinos, but it's now is beset on all sides by fierce competition from slots parlors in Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware, not to mention Indian casinos a short drive away in Connecticut.
Nevada's casinos took in 10.4 percent less, or $10.3 billion.
"These results neatly summarize what casino operators, casino employees and state budget officers already experienced: 2009 was a difficult year for the industry," said Joe Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, a New Jersey casino consulting firm.
"Few gaming markets were spared the impacts of the bad economy," he said. "As we saw, beginning in the second half of 2008, the casino industry is no longer resistant to recession. For better or worse, the industry's 2010 performance will be tied to Americans' feelings of financial well being."
Pennsylvania led the nation in casino revenue growth with a 21.6 percent increase. Much of that is attributable to two new casinos opening last year, bringing the state's total to nine.
Casino revenue also rose in three other states - Colorado, Missouri, and Indiana. Revenue in Indiana, where two casinos that opened in 2008 had their first full year of operation, rose 4.9 percent increase. In Missouri, which did away with limits on how much gamblers could potentially lose, revenue rose 2.9 percent.
Colorado - which raised its betting limit from $5 to $100 at a time, allowed casinos to stay open around the clock and added table games - was up 2.6 percent.
The report found 328,377 people were employed by gambling halls last year, a decline of more than 8 percent from 2008.
Racetrack casinos continued to grow in 2009, despite the recession. Revenue rose 5 percent to $6.4 billion, led by so-called "racinos" in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Tax revenue from racinos was up 1.2 percent to $2.63 billion.
Joe Jaworski of Baltimore started visiting Delaware Park to gamble last year, but only to dip his toes into the betting pool.
"I was watching my wallet then," he said Wednesday. "Now, I'm more of a spendthrift. I hit for a couple hundred dollars once, and now I want to do it more!"
The report found slot machines are the most popular form of casino gambling, favored by 59 percent of gamblers. Colorado and South Dakota derive more than 90 percent of their casino revenue from slots.