Stronger than the storm? Maybe not Atlantic City
Walk into Irene's on the Atlantic City, N.J., boardwalk, and you'll find quite a product selection. You can buy a bottle of sunscreen, a bagful of plastic trinkets and, if you like, an iguana.
The 63-year-old gift shop has sold only two or three of the scaly pets this summer, but that's not the point. The iguanas, like so many features of this seaside gambling mecca, are there to bring in visitors, along with their wallets.
But for Atlantic City, successively buffeted by growing competition from casinos popping up in neighboring states, the effects of a long-lasting recession and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, bringing in visitors has become an increasingly tall order.
Visitors to Atlantic City numbered 27.2 million in 2012, compared with 34.5 million in 2006, according to the South Jersey Transportation Authority. And casino gaming revenue, a crucial bellwether for the city's economy, was just more than $3 billion in 2012, down from the 2006 peak of $5.2 billion according to the American Gaming Association.
This year, first-half casino profits are down 54 percent year over year, according to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.
Numbers like those have left many wondering: Are Atlantic City's best days behind it?
(Read more: Sandy survivors face rebuilding hurdles)
Debbie Devlin, co-owner of Irene's and a lifelong Atlantic City resident, doesn't think so, even though she says her business—like most businesses on the boardwalk—is lower in volume compared with last year.
"It hasn't been an easy year," Devlin said, "but we have what you call 'boardwalk mentality.' And boardwalk mentality is 'next year will be a better year.' "
A few hundred yards down the boardwalk, Azhar Mohmood is not so optimistic.
"I'm leaving next week," he said, "and never coming back."
Mohmood is a "rolling chair operator," pushing Atlantic City's version of a rickshaw across the boardwalk for fares that he says have totaled between $15 to $60 per day this summer.
Originally from Pakistan, Mohmood said he became an American citizen in 1986, and arrived in Atlantic City in 1989. He said he would return to Pakistan before Labor Day, and has no plans to return.
"From '89 until '96, '97, it was all right," he said, referencing the years before casinos in neighboring states opened up. "But then the situation became different."
Now, Mohmood said he was renting his rolling chair from the Royal Rolling Chairs Co. for $100 a week, down from $150 per week last summer. He estimated that his business was down 30 percent from last year.
"Even at $100 a week, drivers aren't renting the chairs out because they're making no money," Mohmood said. "They just sit in the garage."
(Read more: Travel site deal cuts competition)
Mohmood said he could barely make ends meet renting a small room two blocks away from the boardwalk for about $290 per month.
"There are roaches and bed bugs over there. I cannot live in a nice place that asks for more money," he said. "I'm living a hard life."
Mohmood said crime in the city added to his hardship.
"Last year and this year, I got robbed," he said. "I finished the chair, I was going home and guys came behind me. I had money for my rent, and they took all my money."
That's not an unfamiliar theme for entrepreneur and lifelong resident Elliot Nehmad. He owns Elliot's, a boardwalk shop that has been selling jewelry, linens and art since 1973.
"This store's been broken into six times in the last three, four years," he said. "Just to get into the cash registers and take the petty cash that was left in there."
Despite its many challenges, Atlantic City's economy has some bright spots.
(Read more: Labor Day travel highest since 2008 crisis)
"Our revenue is up about 25 percent over the last year," said Anthony Catanoso, co-owner of Atlantic City's Steel Pier amusement park, first established in 1898. "That doesn't mean that our bottom line will be much healthier, but it's good to make sure that your gross goes up."
The key to the increased business, Catanoso said, is a proliferation in the number of families visiting Atlantic City.
"The city, the county and the state have put an emphasis on the family entertainment and nongaming activities," Catanoso said. "That's really our competitive edge over the competing markets like Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York where casino gaming is coming in strong."
Cathy Burke, co-owner of The Irish Pub, a onetime speakeasy located just off the boardwalk, agreed.
(Read more: Atlantic City casino 'Scores' first ever strippers)
"What I've noticed this summer, more than I've ever seen in the past, is families coming to Atlantic City, which is something I think has always been really good for business," Burke said.
Burke said that while her pub may see a revenue decrease of up to 8 percent this year, she's confident that her business, and the city's, will bounce back. Atlantic City should take full advantage of its natural setting, she said.
"When you have an ocean, a beach and a boardwalk, you don't just try to sell yourself as a casino town," she said. "These other places are casino towns because they don't have anything else."
John Palmieri, executive director of the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said that's part of the city's comeback plan.
"Atlantic City can absolutely turn itself around," Palmieri said. "The ocean is our biggest and best calling card. We've got a world famous boardwalk. Everyone in the country hopes that we gain some traction."
—By CNBC's Adam Molon.