Is Atlantic City Finally On a Roll?

Developers in this iconic Shore town are hoping, once more, to hit the jackpot.

Performers in Atlantic City
From left: The Orange Loop’s Bourre stage kicked off in April with a performance by Sepsiss; Cirque Risque at Showboat presents adult-style entertainment. First photo courtesy of Steve Freeman; second photo courtesy of Showboat Atlantic City

Cool and Atlantic City have perhaps been mutually exclusive terms since the days Frank Sinatra held court at the 500 Club more than a half-century ago.

One of America’s first playgrounds, Atlantic City seemed an abyss in the ’70s before it was propped up by casino gambling. Later, the chain-smoking octogenarian stumbling around penny slot machines after seeing a long-past-its-prime classic rock band became a common and unfortunate sight in Atlantic City.

That perception may now be giving way to a long-awaited cultural tsunami. For starters, a highly anticipated, one-day music festival is on the horizon. Atlantic City will turn into Frantic City on September 24, hosting Car Seat Headrest, arguably the most consistent indie rock band of the last decade. Check out their mind-bendingly great Twin Fantasy.

Such legendary acts as Jersey City’s Yo La Tengo, the infallible Superchuck, the underrated Raveonettes, the powerful Murder City Devils, the quirky Titus Andronicus, old-school heroes Samiam and Rocket From the Crypt, and the emerging Snail Mail are set to perform. Former Portlandia and Saturday Night Live star Fred Armisen is hosting.

As happening as Asbury Park is, the city 78 miles north of AC hasn’t put on a show in years to match Frantic City’s cool quotient.

The event is slated for the Orange Loop Amphitheater (OLA) in the not-long-ago woebegone South Inlet. Eight years ago, it appeared that the off-beach New York Avenue neighborhood, with rampant crime and a drug infestation, was finished.

Atlantic City hit its nadir in 2014, when 4 of the 12 casinos were shuttered. Three of the four casinos that rolled snake eyes were located in the South Inlet. Revel, a $2.4 billion high-rise extravaganza that opened in 2012, became a white elephant. Trump Taj Mahal and Showboat closed. But much has changed less than a decade later. Now, an up-and-coming area known as the Orange Loop, a reference to the iconic Monopoly game, is coming into its own. “We are in the middle of the most remarkable comeback in the history of New Jersey,” developer Pat Fasano says. 

It’s like dèjà vu for Fasano as he stands in the parking lot of his restaurant, Bourre, opened in 2019. “There was nothing but hypodermic needles here when I bought this [property],” he says,  pacing with enthusiasm. “But I had a vision.”

Fasano, 66, is likely building the first modern non-casino structure in the Orange Loop since Prohobition-era gangster Nucky Johnson. Eight apartments and two stores are in the works. “We’re going to have a community here,” Fasano says. “There’s a group from Philly building a place with 50 apartments across the street.”

A taffy shop is set to join bars, a marijuana dispensary, a hipster clothing shop, a brick-oven pizza joint, a beer garden and rock clubs.  “Just before I started this, I asked where the downtown in Atlantic City is,” Fasano says. “I found out that AC didn’t have a downtown. What I see for this city is a walkable downtown.”

This is familiar territory for Fasano, who led the development renaissance in Asbury Park 21 years ago. The fit, silver-haired entrepreneur bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. He was the first developer in Asbury Park when the seaside town was famously in a state of disarray.

Asbury Park had the Stone Pony and a strong music heritage, but not much else. The bleak city that inspired Bruce Springsteen appeared to be unsalvageable, despite featuring beachfront property. No one could figure out how to make Asbury Park work.

Fasano was undaunted and revived Cookman Avenue. “I saw the potential in Asbury Park. So I didn’t just buy a building there. I bought a block,” he says.

The New Brunswick native followed that blueprint in Atlantic City by purchasing two city blocks and four acres for approximately $4 million. Gary Hill and John Schultz owned the property and were shocked anyone wanted it. Now, according to Fasano, such developers as Douglas Jemal and Resorts Casino Hotel Morris Bailey are investing in the Orange Loop.

“Where else can you score property like this in New Jersey?” Fasano asks—and answers, “Nowhere. Property close to the beach costs a fortune in New Jersey, except in Atlantic City. This is the only place where you can buy property [for] less now than you could in 2005. ”

Fasano is so bullish on Atlantic City he predicts property value will quadruple in five years as he talks about the 24 townhouses he’s soon constructing.

He also sees more traffic for the South Inlet courtesy of Bart Blatstein, who owns Showboat, now a non-casino hotel. A massive $100 million water park, slated to open summer of 2023 next to Showboat, is under construction.

During the third weekend of May, Blatstein’s 40,000-square-foot Raceway opened alongside Lucky Snake Arcade and Sports Bar, a bustling Showboat attraction. The state-of-the-art track with a neon-lit design features Italian go-karts. Drivers sport helmets equipped with 4K cameras that can upload their runs to social media.

Go-karts at Showboat's Raceway in Atlantic City

Showboat’s Raceway offers 40,000 square feet of electric go-kart track. Photo courtesy of Nastassia Davis

“We’re doing all that we can to make this the most fun place to be,” Blatstein says. The Lucky Snake Arcade and Sports Bar is the largest game stop in the East and is filled with myriad games, from virtual reality to pinball to basketball and bowling.

Blatstein, who bought Showboat for pennies on the dollar—$23 million for a $1 billion infrastructure in 2016—is singing a different tune than six years ago.

Like any good developer, Blatstein bought low. Atlantic City was running out of money and faced a possible state takeover around the time of his Showboat purchase. Four of Atlantic City’s 12 casinos were shuttered in 2014. Annual casino revenue dropped to $2.6 billion from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006. So Blatstein took advantage.

Asked about the future of Atlantic City, he told New Jersey Monthly, “I see cranes. I see a lot of development.” Blatstein, who enjoyed success developing the City of Brotherly Love’s Northern Liberties section and the waterfront district, envisioned a European-style playground that smacked of Ibiza.

Atlantic City development is finally happening. Blatstein had applied for a casino license in early 2020, but decided against bringing one-armed bandits and blackjack tables back to the Showboat. He decided to cater to families, and doubled down on a world-class arcade. 

“People who think that families don’t belong in Atlantic City are myopic,” he says. “It gives an opportunity for someone like me. Some people want Atlantic City to be full of gamblers, but guess what? There’s a hole in the market.”

Children enjoy virtual rides at Atlantic City's Showboat

Showboat’s Lucky Snake Arcade includes thrills like virtual rides. Photo courtesy of Showboat

According to Blatstein, “It’s a shame Miss America has come and gone. We need to create new traditions, and I think we, the developers in this town, will do that.  I decided to go in a different direction. I did my research. People enjoy arcades and go-karts, and they love water parks. I learned that people will travel as far as seven hours to go to a water park.”

Much of the water park will be for families, but there will be adults-only late nights with a DJ. “Just wait and see what it will be like at the water park and what Atlantic City will look like next summer,” Blatstein says. “People will realize that Atlantic City is the place to be.”

Blatstein gives the Orange Loop contingent the thumbs-up. “I know those guys, and they have their heart in the right place,” Blatstein says “They’re doing great. It’s okay to have overlap and competition. The more creativity, the better. When I bought Showboat, that end of the Boardwalk was a dark and lonely place. Showboat, Revel and the Taj were closed. But now Revel turned into Ocean, and Showboat and Hard Rock (formerly Taj) are all doing very well, and the success of the Orange Loop will only benefit everyone at our end of the Boardwalk.”

The gross operating profit for Atlantic City casinos in 2021, according to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, breaks down to Borgata at $174 million, Tropicana at $118.7 million, the Hard Rock at $106.9 million, Harrah’s at $99.5 million, and Ocean at $91.2 million.

“The numbers have been really good for Ocean,” Brian Brennan, the resort’s public relations manager, says. “It’s quite a turnaround for the casino, considering that it was closed not that long ago. This part of the Boardwalk is really coming around.”

The figures released by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement reveal that casino gross gaming revenue (GGR) from land-based operations totaled $235.2 million in April. That’s an increase of 24 percent from April 2021.

Borgata led the pack with a GGR of $61.6 million, and the Hard Rock was second with an impressive $40.6 million. Atlantic City is on the move.

The casinos finally get it after living off the fat of the land for so long. The initial plan, which started in 1978, didn’t include rehabbing the city. Casinos didn’t have to worry about much, since the closest legal gaming competition was Las Vegas. But that changed when gambling was legalized in nearby Pennsylvania in 2004.

“I’m 100 percent in,” Blatstein says. “Two years ago, I was on the fence, but I’m fully engaged now.” The Playground, the mall Blatstein owned that extends from Caesars over the Boardwalk and about 50 feet into the Atlantic, faltered in 2019. His company, Tower Investments, purchased the billion-dollar infrastructure for just $2.7 million from Caesars in 2015 and sold it back to the casino in January 2020.

“In real estate, the value is in location,” Fasano explains. “Location is something you can’t change, but what you can change is perception. What I’m experiencing now is exactly what I experienced in Asbury Park. I had to change the perception. The bonus here is that it’s not easy to park in Asbury Park. There’s plenty of parking in Atlantic City. The beach is free. It’s an ideal situation. Mayor [Marty] Small is working with us, and so is the Atlantic City council. There are tax breaks until 2026, which might be pushed back to 2028. The return of Atlantic City is in play. ”

Kevin Hart, Alicia Keys and Rod Stewart are some of the big-name acts performing this summer at the Hard Rock Atlantic City.

“We’re excited about the concert schedule, everything the Hard Rock provides and what is happening on the Orange Loop,” says Michael Woodside, vice president of entertainment for Hard Rock Atlantic City. “What’s making a difference is the collaboration we have at the south end of the Boardwalk. Collaboration is at an all-time high.  We’re very excited about what our neighbors are doing, since it’s going to be positive for everybody.”

Chris Christie, who was governor of New Jersey during Atlantic City’s darkest days, was all smiles while returning to the Orange Loop to catch Sting at the Hard Rock Live’s Etess Arena in May. “It’s great how this city and this area is coming back,” Christie says. “It’s phenomenal.”

 Says Fasano: “Come back here in three years and you’ll be shocked what Atlantic City becomes. We’re going to restore the glory to this once proud city, and it will be amazing.” 

Ed Condran is a frequent contributor who has written for numerous publications, from Parenting to Playboy. 

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