Atlantic City Casino CEOs Unite Against — Well, Atlantic City

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Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen, who grew up in Atlantic County and got his first job in Atlantic City four decades ago, got the ball rolling a few weeks ago.

And then last week, his peers in the Atlantic City casino industry decided to up the ante on complaints about the way local officials manage the city’s business.

The event was a panel hosted by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, with CEOs of all but one of the nine casinos in attendance (Ocean Casino Resort’s CEO was not).

Credit another Hard Rock executive, President Joe Lupo, with most effectively cutting to the chase.

“Our buildings can’t be surrounded by drug addicts and prostitutes,” Lupo told the audience. “The street lights need to work. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. The city needs to be in better shape; it’s going to be tough.”

“Three-foot potholes” near the entrance to his casino was a gripe of Tropicana executive Steve Callender, with Borgata boss Marcus Glover charitably noting at the event, “There’s still a lot of blight.”

The grievances came at a critical juncture for the city, which promoted councilman Marty Small to mayor last fall after predecessor Frank Gilliam pled guilty to the theft of $87,000 from a youth basketball team.

The city already is being managed by the state, a takeover that took place under former Gov. Chris Christie and will continue through 2021.

A referendum on Atlantic City government

Even so, there will be a citywide referendum on March 31 on whether to scrap the current form of government with a mayor and city council members. The proposed alternative would have the city instead be run by a “manager,” with the number of council members dropping from nine to five.

With more than a half-century of indictments, convictions, and removals of a wide variety of local elected officials, residents will be asked to figure out if this change will make things better — or even worse.

While the manager would act effectively as a CEO in running the city’s operations and finances, a mayor — selected annually from the five at-large council seats — would preside over meetings.

Some other elected officials and local NAACP leaders oppose the change as a “power grab” that would further disenfranchise the city’s African-American community.

Pushing for a new civic approach are former state Sen. Ray Lesniak — the leader of the decade-long and successful push to add legal sports betting for the city’s casinos — as well as Resorts CEO Morris Bailey and influential casino union leader Bob McDevitt.

One of the key issues of 2020, no matter how that vote goes, is the future of the former Showboat casino property once owned by Caesars.

Another new casino in Atlantic City?

For more than four decades, New Jersey has had a split personality in terms of the extent of free enterprise in the casino industry. No casino can be opened anywhere outside the Atlantic City limits, but within the city the marketplace alone determines the number of casinos that are viable.

That number was 12 in 2006, when Pennsylvania and New York each opened casinos that sent the city’s annual casino revenues — which had increased every year since Resorts opened in 1978 with an East Coast monopoly — into a decade-long tailspin.

Wall Street analysts at the annual East Coast Gaming Congress held in the city each spring kept warning that 12 casinos was far too many. But operators held on until 2014, when the dominoes began to fall.

The Atlantic Club closed first, then Showboat, Trump Plaza, Revel (which had just opened in 2012), and finally Trump Taj Mahal in 2016.

Operators of the seven surviving casinos — three of them owned by Caesars Entertainment — enjoyed a significant boost in profits as competition dwindled.

But in mid-2018, Revel was reborn as Ocean Resort Casino and Hard Rock opened to bring the casino tally up to nine sites.

Profits predictably slipped, but there have been no closures or strong rumors of one. Still, developer Bart Blatstein — who reopened Showboat as a non-gambling hotel on the Boardwalk — may upend the market.

If Blatstein goes through with suggestions that he will try later this year to revive Showboat as a 10th full-fledged casino in the city, two casino executives warned last week that it potentially would have catastrophic, “cannibalistic” results, threatening bottom lines across the industry.

Every year, it seems as if Atlantic City’s future is a roll of the dice — so why should 2020 be any different?

Photo by Racheal Grazias / Shutterstock.com

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John Brennan

John Brennan has covered NJ and NY sports business and gaming since 2002 and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist in 2008, while reporting for The Bergen County Record.

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