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Atlantic City aiming to be Vegas East

ATLANTIC CITY -- Miss America and her tiara are gone, replaced by lingerie-wearing blackjack dealers, beverage servers in bustiers, a million-dollar steakhouse/gentlemen's club and soon a "Naked Circus."

Three casinos have bikini beach bars on the sand. Outside the gambling halls, there are a half-dozen strip clubs and a sex swingers/voyeurs club. Even the New York strip club Scores wants to open a branch here.

It's all part of an effort to attract new business and fight off competition from casinos in neighboring states. The emphasis on sexiness is designed to appeal to a younger, and hopefully more free-spending, crowd.

Ever since gambling started in the nation's second-largest casino market in 1978, Atlantic City has been torn over whether to market itself as a family resort, or as Sin City East. Guess which side is winning?

"In our industry, the casino and entertainment and hospitality business, you want to provide things that are pleasing and exciting and fun," said Dennis Gomes, co-owner of Resorts Hotel Casino. "One of the things that most people find pleasing, exciting and fun is sex."

His casino is testing the boundaries of Atlantic City, which for all its history as a bawdy vice destination at the turn of the century has been rather tame when it comes to sex as a marketing tool. The low-cut flapper dresses Resorts is making its female beverage servers wear have generated two lawsuits from older women who say they were fired for being judged insufficiently sexy.

Last summer, Gov. Chris Christie said he envisioned the gambling resort as a more family-friendly place, with Ferris wheels and amusement parks to complement the casinos. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment this week.

The Steel Pier has amusement rides and games, and there are a mini-golf course and an arcade on the Boardwalk, and an aquarium within driving distance. But there's decidedly less for families and kids to do here than there is for adults.

If it seems like Atlantic City is trying to catch up to Las Vegas, it is. The Diving Horse, a $1-million-plus gentlemen's club/steakhouse, opened two weeks ago with Vegas on its mind.

"We've always looked to promote Atlantic City as a sensual destination, and we started to push the envelope a little more," said Jeff Vasser of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "But you have to balance it. At the end of the day, we are still a community that existed long before it was a casino town."

But Joseph Monek, a 74-year-old retiree from Bethlehem, Pa., says sexing up is not what this resort city needs. He said, "The best bet is to improve the beach and the Boardwalk, and people will come, we hope, and bring some cash to the casinos."

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