Hard Rock CEO — And Atlantic City Native Son — Has Harsh Words for City Officials

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Atlantic City elected officials have come under fire repeatedly in recent years, but last week’s criticism had a particular sting to it.

That’s because it came from Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen, who is as knowledgeable about the market as any casino executive in the world.

Allen grew up in nearby Northfield, and first landed a job as a dishwasher before becoming a cook at Bally’s Park Place in 1979, the second year of casinos in Atlantic City. Allen, then just a teenager, had to find work due to the sudden death of his father at just age 48.

For most of the 1980s, Allen worked in The Trump Organization, which at the time was a major player on the Boardwalk. Allen still has a home in Atlantic County, and he has always professed to having a soft spot for the city.

During Revel casino’s rocky life (2012-14) and shortly after its death, Allen was seen by industry insiders as the best man to revive the property. At the annual East Coast Gaming Congress, where Allen seems to turn up on one panel after another each year, his involvement — or lack of it — was seen by many as a referendum on the city’s future.

The same was true of Allen’s exploration into building his own casino in the city in the years before Revel opened with such a (brief) flourish.

If even Allen, with his deep Atlantic City roots, stayed away, what hope was there?

Jim Allen comes home

That’s why Allen’s decision to bring the Hard Rock brand to another shuttered casino, Trump Taj Mahal, was such a boon for the city. The property opened in mid-2018 and already is one of the leading revenue generators.

So that’s the backdrop to last Thursday, when Allen held a press conference to announce the awarding of more than $2 million in bonuses to be divided by all full-time workers at the casino. That’s a big deal in an industry where none of the properties have done so since an economic downturn kicked off in 2006 as Pennsylvania opened one casino after another near the New Jersey border.

The feel-good atmosphere shifted a bit afterward when Allen told reporters, “Frankly, the town’s in worse shape today than it was when we bought [Trump Taj Mahal, in 2017].”

Allen zeroed in on broken street lights in the Hard Rock neighborhood as an example of the problems.

“When you’re in a resort environment where safety and security is so important, if the city can’t get something fixed as simple as the street lighting, then maybe a change is needed,” Allen said. “The city is going in the wrong direction.”

Time for a new direction in AC?

Allen even said he is starting to mull over whether to endorse a movement to change Atlantic City’s form of government, in a March 31 referendum where a mayor would be replaced by a city manager and the number of council members would shrink from nine to five.

The city has had numerous mayors forced to leave office and/or serve prison time due to misdeeds over the 40-plus years of having legal casinos as by far the city’s biggest industry.

The remarks contrast with his company’s purchase of the Trump property in 2017, when he told the Associated Press, “I think the toughest times in Atlantic City are over, including in terms of bad publicity.”

Even after four decades, Allen’s work as a chef is still in his mind. At his press conference, Allen — who has spent more than a decade growing the Hard Rock company — dryly noted that the gravy at the buffet on a recent visit was so thick that “we could plug a hole in a boat with it. And the cannolis weren’t that great, either.”

Photo by Steve Heap / 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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