Destination: Atlantic City

Jersey's gambling mecca has some aces up its sleeve this summer.

The sweeping view from the steps of the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City.
The sweeping view from the steps of the Taj Mahal casino takes in the Boardwalk, the beach and Steel Pier, with its 200-foot-high observation wheel.
Photo by Sam Rosenblatt

Atlantic City is putting on a brave face. Still smarting from a year in which four of its casino hotels folded their cards, the seaside resort is hoping to attract crowds this summer with amped-up entertainment, improved dining, unique gaming concepts, renovated hotels and ambitious shopping venues.

New Jersey’s gambling mecca opened its first casino in 1978 and as recently as 2012 finished second only to Las Vegas in annual gaming revenue. The problem, of course, is that new casinos have opened in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and other nearby states. The competition has taken its toll. In January 2014, the Atlantic Club closed, followed eight months later by Showboat. By September, Revel Casino Hotel, a gleaming $2 billion-plus gamble, had unravelled; Trump Plaza closed a few weeks later.

As devastating as the closings have been for tourism and employment, many developers and business owners are betting that lady luck will smile on the city once again. There’s a reason for their optimism. The shakeout already has led to a 44.7 percent increase in gross operating profit for the eight remaining casinos, according to a 2014 year-end report from the state Division of Gaming Enforcement.

Eager to build on gains, some casinos are upping the ante by sprucing up their properties and diversifying entertainment offerings. Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa aims to build on its momentum with new non-gaming attractions and upgraded accommodations.

Festival Park, a new outdoor concert venue and festival space at Borgata, promises to be a huge attraction. This summer, marquee names like Meghan Trainor, Darius Rucker and Willie Nelson will take the stage. Borgata’s interior renovations, which began in 2012, were completed in May with a revamp of the Opus suites, the Toccare Spa and the fitness center. A state-of-the-art nightclub is slated to launch at the close of 2015.

In February, New Jersey became the first state to allow casinos to conduct skill-based and social games for monetary prizes—gambling dependent not solely on luck. Borgata jumped right in with a basketball free-throw competition. More than 600 players put up at least $20 (most paid $40 so they could play twice) to test their skills and vie for the jackpot, which totaled $10,220.

“Skill- and social-based gaming appeals to a new generation of players who are tech- and mobile-savvy and might not be as engaged by traditional slots,” says Kerry Langan, a public information officer at the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. The DGE’s tech lab is reviewing one developer’s electronic skills-game concept; the agency hopes more proposals will follow.

Meanwhile, the Tropicana casino refurbished 434 of 2,000-plus guest rooms and remodeled the North Tower casino floor as part of a $50 million renovation. A two-story, 12,455-square-foot fitness center opened in May; the public is welcome. But it’s the Trop’s exterior that will garner the most attention with a new light-and-sound show streaming nightly on the building’s façade. The grand spectacle of choreographed strobe lights, music and videos will be displayed on 11 LED screens—one a giant 60 feet high by 40 feet wide—lending Times Square-like energy to the Boardwalk.

Resorts Hotel and Casino is also getting into the act, expanding its convention space by 12,000 square feet. The upgrades include 11 new conference rooms, three ballrooms and a multi-purpose showroom.

As for Revel, it is uncertain whether the ill-fated 3-year-old casino will reopen for the season. The property’s sale to Florida developer Glenn Straub—the deal seesawed for months over unresolved disputes with former Revel tenants and a utility contractor—was not finalized until early April.

AC shopping also hopes to generate new excitement. Outdoor store Bass Pro Shops opened a long-awaited 86,000-square-foot store in April at Tanger Outlets the Walk, the shopping mall a five-minute stroll from the Boardwalk. The outlets include more than 90 shops, such as Brooks Brothers, J.Crew and the Nike Factory Store.

Bass Pro Shop’s first New Jersey outpost is an elaborate operation that may become an attraction in itself. At the entrance, visitors walk past a simulated boatyard and blacksmith’s shop replete with vintage vessels, nautical photos and antique memorabilia. Throughout the store, homage is paid to New Jersey wildlife. Each department features a hand-painted mural of a Garden State vista (the Mullica River in the fishing department, the Pine Barrens in the hunting section). A 13,000-gallon freshwater aquarium with a two-story waterfall is stocked with 100 Jersey-specific fish, including large- and smallmouth bass, brook trout and northern pike.

Back at the Boardwalk, an ambitious makeover of the former Caesars Pier Shops has been set in motion by Tower Investments, which purchased the property—once valued at $200 million—for $2.7 million in November 2014.

The 500,000-square-foot Pier Shops—redubbed the Playground—will still offer sweeping ocean views, high-end shops (Tommy Bahama, Apple, Louis Vuitton) and Stephen Starr’s Buddakan restaurant. In recent years, the Pier has seemed a ghost town. Tower CEO Bart Blatstein is determined to change that. On Memorial Day weekend he plans to re-open the first floor of the four-story structure.

Along with swank retailers, the Playground’s revived first floor—entered on the same level as the Boardwalk—will house music clubs featuring rock, jazz, folk and R&B. A large central stage will host local and national performers. The second and third floors, projected for completion by November, will add a bowling alley and a sports lounge. Two pools are planned, one on the beach itself and the other mounted on the part of the pier that extends over the rolling surf.

Steps away, the iconic Steel Pier amusement park has put on a fresh face, expanding by 30,000 square feet. Fourteen new rides have been added—including a 200-foot-high observation wheel. The tallest such ride in New Jersey, it offers sweeping views of Atlantic City shoreline and skyline.

In February, Caesars brought a celebrity chef to town, or at least a huge, 290-seat restaurant bearing his name. The Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill hopes to duplicate the success it has enjoyed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The famously persnickety star of Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares has a fleet of restaurants, high and low. This one aims to be a classy English pub, with more than 30 beers on tap. The menu, overseen by chef La Tasha McCutchen, winner of Season 13 of Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, features pub faves like bangers & mash and fish & chips, along with London broil and New Zealand red snapper. Ramsay joins other celeb-chef spots in AC such as Bobby Flay Steak, at the Borgata, and Guy Fieri’s Chophouse, which opened last summer at Bally’s. Café 2825 lacks a famous name, but that didn’t daunt Open Table customers, whose enthusiasm for its Northern Italian cuisine landed it in the reservation service’s Top 100 Best Restaurants in America for 2014.

For casual fare along the Boardwalk, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, which opened in May 2013, continues to conjure a carefree vacation vibe. Anchoring the Boardwalk entrance at Resorts, the restaurant offers tropical cocktails and décor with a beachy menu of chimichurri flat-iron steak, coconut shrimp and cheerful cocktails. Margaritaville’s sister installation, Landshark Bar & Grill, stands across the Boardwalk, offering waterside bar bites like fish tacos, burgers and embellished hot dogs.

There is more to AC dining than the Boardwalk. In town, west of the Boardwalk the Iron Room at the Atlantic City Bottle Company offers a fun, neo-tapas menu (pulled-pork tacos and duck-confit cheese fries, for example). The cozy, 40-seat boite offers more than 90 beers, a dozen on tap, and a host of trendy brown liquors and cocktails.

Still more help is on the way for AC. Straub, Revel’s new owner, has ambitions plans for the mega-resort—with its 1,399 guest rooms, 130,000-square-foot casino floor, 32,000-square-foot spa and five swimming pools. In bidding for Revel, Straub alluded to a $500 million makeover. Reports say Revel’s remake is just one element of an eight-part plan Straub calls the Phoenix Project. Its lofty goals for the city include acquisition of an airfield and creation of an equestrian complex, water parks, a spa/medical complex and more.

Already in the works is Straub’s deal to buy the former Showboat casino from Stockton University. The school purchased the defunct casino for $18 million last November with plans to turn it into a satellite campus, but was met with resistance from a neighboring casino, Trump Taj Mahal. A 28-year-old agreement between Showboat and the Taj dictates that the Showboat space remain a casino. Straub swooped in with a safety net for the school, purchasing the property from Stockton for $26 million. (Under a contingency plan, Stockton has 90 days to resolve its dispute with Taj Mahal and cancel its deal with Straub.)

Smaller-scale gaming could be on the horizon. Curtis Bashaw, owner of the Chelsea, a 330-room, non-casino hotel on the Boardwalk near Pacific Avenue, says he wants to add gaming. He would be the first to take advantage of proposed legislation that would allow smaller, so-called boutique casinos. A developer and hotelier with properties in Cape May, Manhattan and Sag Harbor, Bashaw expressed interest in gaming when he opened the Chelsea in 2012. At the time, the state required boutique casinos to be newly built properties that would eventually expand to 500 rooms. The pending bill, cosponsored by Senate president Stephen Sweeney and state senator James Whelan, would eliminate those stipulations.

“We’d move right away on this,” Bashaw says, “and hopefully be able to launch [gaming] six months after approval.” Bashaw wants to model the Chelsea’s gambling space on the club-like casinos of London and Monaco. “I’d create an intimate experience,” he says, “a place where friends can play together. Right now, if you want to play blackjack at one of the bigger casinos and you’re a novice, it’s kind of intimidating. And if you come with friends, you have to wait for a spot at a table and you won’t end up playing together.”

Diversifying the casino experience will draw a new generation of gamers to Atlantic City, Bashaw predicts. He says he plans to keep table stakes lower than at the big casinos, offer gaming instruction and—with a “velvet-rope nightclub approach,” requiring table reservations—improve gaming’s image from low-brow to cosmopolitan.
By September, a mega convention facility attached to Harrah’s casino will bring new visitors to town. The planned 100,000-square-foot conference center is touted as the largest meeting space between Baltimore and Boston.

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