Hard Rock Casino is Upping the Ante in AC

In Atlantic City, two revived casino hotels bring the promise of fresh excitement to the Boardwalk.

Admiring the towers of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino are, from left, developers Jack Morris and Joe Jingoli and Matt Harkness, president of Hard Rock Atlantic City.
Admiring the towers of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino are, from left, developers Jack Morris and Joe Jingoli and Matt Harkness, president of Hard Rock Atlantic City.
Photo by Dave Moser

Joe Jingoli is excited. “Everything is going just like we hoped,” says the Trenton-bred developer as he ponders the transformation of what was once the Trump Taj Mahal into Atlantic City’s new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

It’s a sunny, if chilly, April morning. More than 1,000 construction workers are entering the Hard Rock worksite, and the overhaul of the 28-year-old Taj is on schedule for a June 28 grand opening.

The Hard Rock is one of two casino openings expected in Atlantic City this summer. The second, Ocean Resort Casino, will be the new incarnation of Revel, the flashy resort that opened to much fanfare in 2012, was shuttered two years later, and is now on its third owner.

Two other Boardwalk projects are quickening pulses for Atlantic City boosters this summer. Toward the southern end of the Boardwalk, Stockton University is nearing completion of its $220 million Stockton Gateway project, which includes an oceanfront campus. A few blocks away, the Tropicana is expanding with the renovation of the neighboring Chelsea Tower, which it acquired last July.

These investments in Atlantic City are coming to fruition as the once-beleaguered gambling mecca seems to have turned a financial corner—at least as far as its casinos are concerned. The city’s seven remaining casinos all reported profits in the fourth quarter of 2017. For the full year, the casinos experienced a 5 percent increase in net gaming revenue and a 22.5 percent jump in gross operating profits over the previous year.

Atlantic City’s improved fortunes follow years of retrenchment that saw five of the city’s 12 casinos go belly up—including Trump Taj Mahal and Revel—between 2013 and 2017. The casino closings were attributed to a number of factors, principally increased competition from casinos in neighboring states. With casino revenues in decline, the state took control of Atlantic City’s finances in 2016. That, too, is changing. In February, Governor Phil Murphy appointed attorney Jim Johnson to serve as special counsel on seaside gambling. Johnson will recommend ways to return the city to local control.

While some observers believe seven casinos might be the winning number for Atlantic City, new investors are placing big bets that there is room for growth—despite the continued competition from out-of-state casinos.

“I’m confident that things will go well,” says Jingoli, CEO of Lawrenceville-based Joseph Jingoli & Son. “I know New Jersey and Atlantic City. I believe there is opportunity here. There is room for another A player.”

The “A player” reference is to the Borgata, by far Atlantic City’s most profitable casino hotel. The glistening tower in the city’s marina section has succeeded in attracting fashionable millennials with a taste for glitzy nightlife, big-name entertainment and high-end dining experiences.

Betting that they could play Borgata’s game, a group of investors led by Hard Rock International purchased Trump Taj Mahal in March 2017 from then owner Carl Icahn, the New York-based investment giant. The $50 million purchase price came to about 4 cents on the dollar relative to the $1.2 billion Donald Trump spent to open the Taj in 1990.

Hard Rock International’s partners in the deal include Jingoli and Piscataway-based Edgewood Properties, a development company headed by CEO Jack Morris, a Somerset County resident. Another Jersey guy, Linwood native Jim Allen, is CEO of Hard Rock International, the casino and resort operator that was purchased in 2007 by the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida. Hard Rock already had its brand on a restaurant in the old Taj; the new deal represents its first move into Atlantic City’s gaming market.

The partners have poured $500 million into the renovation and relaunch of the resort. They plan to go right at Borgata’s market by presenting top-tier entertainment—as many as 200 shows this year—at the venue’s gussied-up Mark Etess Arena. Blake Shelton, Amy Schumer and Rascal Flatts are among the headliners announced to play this summer at the Hard Rock.

“We hope people give Atlantic City a second chance, and I believe they will since they will be drawn by the entertainment we will provide,” Jingoli says. “They will see our restaurants and gaming halls and see that the landscape is changing for the better in Atlantic City. I have a good feel for New Jersey.” (At deadline, the hotel had not revealed its restaurant lineup, but it will include a Hard Rock Cafe.)

Bart Blatstein, another investor who has bet big on Atlantic City, gives thumbs up to the Hard Rock project. “It will be magnificent,” he gushes. “It’s going to be a diamond.”

Blatstein owns the neighboring Showboat, a former casino that has been a non-gaming hotel since reopening in July 2016. Blatstein applied for a gaming license for Showboat in February. He is counting on the Hard Rock to help revitalize the blighted northern end of the Boardwalk. “You’ll be able to do a fun pub crawl going from Resorts to the Hard Rock to the Showboat and to the Revel.”

Jingoli is the guiding hand behind the Hard Rock project. The entrepreneur has helped revitalize New Brunswick and Camden with a variety of development projects, including student housing and an academic building in the former and the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in the latter.

“Joe is an amazing guy,” says Edgewood’s Morris. “He has a bigger heart than you can ever imagine, and he knows how to fix things. Joe knows Atlantic City.”

The 59-year-old Jingoli has deep connections to the gambling resort. He was the builder and former co-owner of the ACR Energy Partners plant, which powered the failed Revel. Among other current gigs, he’s the general contractor on the Stockton Gateway project.
Jingoli has even lived at the Jersey Shore, including in Atlantic City. “I spent a lot of time here during the ’80s, and I lived here during the ’90s as a vendor to the industry. I know what it’s like to get up for a morning jog on the Boardwalk. I remember how exciting it was when Mike Tyson fought title fights here. We’re going to bring it back. We have a plan.”

When renovations are complete, the exterior of the Hard Rock will look much as the Taj did when the building closed in 2016—although the garish red and gold letters that spelled Trump Taj Mahal will be nowhere in sight. The interior has been completely gutted with the exception of the tower suites, which were revamped shortly before the building was shuttered.

The Hard Rock plans to take full advantage of its Boardwalk location. “You don’t have to go into the casino to get to the beach,” Jingoli says. “But I think it will be pretty difficult for people not to go in. We can’t wait for people to have a new experience in Atlantic City.”

The Hard Rock developers expect the hotel’s presence to enhance the entire community. The operation will create 3,500 jobs, meaning there will be plenty of opportunities for locals. The casino is also working on social initiatives to further benefit the area. “If part of your currency is social responsibility, you can change your neighborhood for the better,” Jingoli says. “We want to give the community opportunities. That’s part of our business model, and it’s sustainable.”

Crime has long been a concern on the Boardwalk, but thanks to an increased police presence and an abundance of security cameras, the four-mile stretch isn’t as dangerous as it was five years ago. According to Atlantic City police data, violent crime was reduced by 11.5 percent in 2017. Nonviolent crime was down by 4.2 percent.

According to Jingoli, discussions are underway to add more Boardwalk cameras where needed.

The resurrection of Revel as Ocean Resort Casino can be counted on to enliven the northern end of the Boardwalk. The giant tower, visible from miles away on the mainland, is scheduled to open during the summer and will be part of Hyatt’s Unbound Collection of unique hotels. Beyond that, few details are available from the new owners, Denver, Colorado-based Integrated Properties, which owns office and residential space in its home state and a small casino hotel in Las Vegas. Integrated purchased the resort in October from developer Glenn Straub, who had failed to reopen Revel after buying it in bankruptcy court in August 2015.

Ocean Resorts is unique among Atlantic City hotels. Its lobby is on the sixth floor, and none of its elevators opens to a casino.
When it opened in April 2012, Revel was notable for its impressive restaurant lineup. The new resort’s dining options have yet to be revealed. Like Revel, it will have a ground-level pool, a sun deck with cabanas, and a fitness center and spa. The spa will feature 32 treatment rooms, a mind-body studio and a retail boutique.

Those investing in Atlantic City need look no further than the Tropicana for justification. The Trop emerged from bankruptcy in 2010 with an infusion of capital from Icahn Enterprises. In the ensuing years, more than $200 million was invested in upgrades, renovations and enhancements. Last year, the Trop was Atlantic City’s second most successful casino, according to the Division of Gaming Enforcement. (At deadline, Icahn announced the sale of his nationwide Tropicana assets, including the flagship Atlantic City hotel, for $1.85 billion. The Trop’s new owner is Eldorado Resorts, a gaming company in Reno, Nevada.)

The Trop’s latest acquisition, the Chelsea Tower, located directly across South Morris Avenue, gives the resort an additional 330 rooms, plus a rooftop pool and bar, a saltwater pool, and three new food-and-beverage entries: the Whiskey Five Bar, the Chelsea Five Gastropub and the breakfast-oriented Gilchrist Restaurant. A pedestrian skybridge connects the Chelsea with the Trop’s Havana Tower.

“It’s a neat space,” says Tropicana general manager Steve Callender. “The cool thing is that we’ll have something different here. The Chelsea will give the Tropicana a place that’s boutiquey. People can get away from the hustle and bustle and settle in at the Chelsea. People will take note of what we have here.”

Hard Rock’s Allen certainly noticed what the Trop has achieved. “We looked at how the Tropicana went to second in terms of what it generated,” Allen says. “They made a big investment and it paid off.”

Allen, who is based in Florida but still owns a home in Linwood, was hired as a cook at Bally’s in 1979. After cutting his teeth at Bally’s, he eventually became an executive in the Trump organization, where he was on a team that oversaw all three of Trump’s Atlantic City casinos during the ‘90s.

“I learned so much while I worked at his casinos,” Allen says. “I was there when the Taj Mahal opened in 1990. I know that building. We weren’t going to renovate the Atlantic Club or the Trump Plaza,” he explains. “We didn’t feel that the bones were strong enough like they are at what was the Taj Mahal. I know we could do what we needed to do there. We gutted everything, all of the public areas, the restaurants, the stairs and the escalators. We made the changes, and it coincides with Atlantic City, which is changing.”

Checking out the Trop was just part of the due diligence Jingoli, Allen and Morris performed. “We believe Atlantic City is going to trend upward,” Jingoli says. “We believe what we’re doing is very sound.”

Brian J. Tyrrell, a professor of tourism and hospitality at Stockton University, concurs. “It looks like they’re buying in at the right time,” he says. “The entrance of new companies in Atlantic City is a net positive for the city.”

Even the Trop’s Callender sees the new competition as a positive. “We’re hoping that the Hard Rock will grow the market,” he says. “We’re hoping the same about Ocean Resort. The property that was the Revel is intriguing. The more people that visit Atlantic City the better.”

Unfortunately, not every Atlantic City story is a total success. In 2014, Blatstein’s Philadelphia-based Tower Investments bought the Pier Shops for $2.7 million. Blatstein renamed it the Playground and promised exciting new shopping and entertainment experiences. But the waterfront pier has lost a number of tenants, including Gucci, Burberry and Starbucks, and about 80 percent of the site was empty during a February visit.

Blatstein would not comment about the Playground’s fortunes.

Beyond the hospitality industry, the Stockton Gateway Project is also expected to help the city’s turnaround. This fall, Stockton—a public university with campuses in Galloway, Hammonton, Manahawkin and Woodbine, in addition to Atlantic City—plans to open the 675,000-square-foot, $220 million Gateway. It will be the new headquarters for South Jersey Gas as well as a university campus. The latter includes an academic building and housing for more than 500 students.

The $178.3 million campus is bordered by Albany, Atlantic, Trenton and Ventnor avenues. The 56,000-square-foot academic building will have three floors, 14 classrooms and computer labs. The housing is on the Boardwalk across from the Knife and Fork Inn, just southeast of the Atlantic Club. From the Boardwalk, students will cross the street to reach the academic building on the site of the old Atlantic City high school.

“It’s an exciting time for Atlantic City,” Jingoli says. “There are the casinos, which are reopening. There will be construction in time and a vibrant campus on the way. We’re thrilled to be part of that.”

Ed Condran is a freelance writer based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.

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