By Laura Kolnoski
That joyful noise you hear emanating from south Jersey is the hope of Atlantic City as the struggling resort revives with summer activity. Things have been dismal in Vegas East since the recession, but summer at least delivers the illusion the city is booming with crowds that will open their wallets and raise profit margins.
Outdoor music venues attract steady crowds until they close too early, after Labor Day. The popular, successful Margaritaville at Resorts, a steady draw, celebrates its one-year anniversary this month. The only year ‘round bar on the beach, Jimmy Buffett’s New Jersey venue is a hub of live music, tropical ambiance, and appropriately garbed Parrotheads.
At the Golden Nugget (formerly Trump Marina), they have admirably upgraded their smaller locale, but the undisputed highlight is the outdoor deck that literally vibrates with dancers enjoying live music beginning in the afternoon in season. It’s a one-of-a-kind spot with spectacular views. Trump Plaza’s ample Beach Bar is equally popular. Once pricey, competition has forced them all to offer specials and happy hour pricing.
The massive, glittering Revel, struggling to survive, is awash in rumors; the most prevalent being it may become a Hard Rock Casino/Hotel. An insider told me that since the recent bankruptcy, new management has been doing well, making needed changes that are showing promising results. Twenty years ahead of its time, Revel has had to shed some of its features and amenities, giving in to things it resisted to mesh with other casinos. They’ve added a high rollers room, allow smoking in some areas (boo), and turned one restaurant into the standard all-hours family-priced eatery, which serves the best homemade corned beef hash at breakfast I’ve ever had. The Sky Garden, originally available only to guests, is now open to the public.
Its third, outdoor Vegas-style DJ disco pool with costly cabanas opened last summer, immediately filled with revelers, pun intended. Folks say they love Revel, yet it remains at the bottom of the profit scale. It became my favorite as soon as opened. Its visionary creator was the first to install floor-to-ceiling windows on the sea, so you can view and appreciate where you are from inside, including the casino floor. That guy got it, but he was pushed out when his concept didn’t materialize into anticipated profits fast enough.
Atlantic City’s biggest obstacle remains its run-down neighborhoods, crime, and unemployment, which cannot be avoided by the very audience casinos must attract. Advances have been made, but they are sporadic and insufficient. The new mayor, the aptly named Don Guardian, dove in with fervor and is already making changes and raising hope. He quickly held an economic development forum and is easing processes for investing and building. City departments have linked via software to speed applications and now open at 6:30 a.m. for contractors. Mayor Guardian vows to keep the streets cleaner and maintain landscaping.
The Journal spoke exclusively with Mr. Tim Lizura, president and CEO of New Jersey’s Economic Development Authority, who also sits on the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority. After touring AC in March, Mr. Lizura said he thinks the right people are now in place to make a meaningful difference. “The mayor is full of energy,” Mr. Lizura told The Journal. “The state is providing business financing, incentives for large investments, and is helping identify opportunities through programs, grants, and loans to small businesses.” He cited the successful first full year of Margaritaville and the coming $35 million renovation and expansion of the Tropicana, popular for its Cuban-themed The Quarter indoor plaza, but showing signs of age. Mr. Lizura touted the historic Gardiner’s Basin area, at AC’s northern end across the inlet from the marina casinos. The scenic former fishing village offers waterview restaurants, boat action, and shops, along with a kid-friendly aquarium and live concerts in summer.
“The inlet property at Gardiner’s Basin has tremendous potential; it’s quaint and one of the nicest areas of the city,” Mr. Lizura said. “The completion of the infrastructure into the inlet and building being done with new housing there will further enhance it.” Through the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, New Jersey is also involved in new construction at Harrah’s – a $126 million conference center expected to bolster the city’s convention business. Caesar’s is Harrah’s parent company and owns four casino hotels in the city. With the Tropicana, Caesar’s bought, closed, and emptied the Atlantic Club Casino Resort (originally Golden Nugget, formerly Hilton) in January. While sad, it reduces the competition, which Caesar’s CEO Gary Loveman says is essential for AC’s survival.
Yes, there is plenty to cast negative aspersions upon in America’s oldest boardwalk town, but I love it for all the positives it offers, especially in summer. You can have a week’s worth of fantastic adventures there without gambling. The casinos, the mayor, and the entire community will welcome you with open arms, however you spend your money.