In many ways, Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino has a lot of similarities to its host metropolis.
Both were once highly regarded as a place to see and be seen.
Today, they barely resemble anything close to their former heydays. The foundations of Atlantic City and Bally’s are solid but the facades need work. Each is now searching to regain some semblance of former glory.
So, as intertwined as the two are, it makes sense that Bally’s would put someone in charge who is intimately familiar with both the city and the casino.
Enter Nicholas Polcino, a gaming industry veteran with more than four decades in the casino trenches.
Polcino, 68, is now the general manager of Bally’s Atlantic City.
Play NJ recently spoke exclusively with the man now in charge of leading the transformation of AC’s third-oldest casino.
Walking the talk on the Boardwalk
Before taking over the Boardwalk casino, Polcino (or Nicky P to those who know him well) made his mark in Atlantic City, Mississippi, Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware.
In the sunset years of his career, Polcino has been tasked with reviving an aging and neglected casino hotel with the most famous address in Atlantic City.
It’s no small feat. But Polcino has faith and the support of a gaming operator with a willingness to spend.
Bally’s Corporation, the casino’s parent company formerly known as Twin River Worldwide Holdings, bought the AC property for $25 million last year. It was just one in a series of multi-million dollar acquisitions, mergers, or partnerships executed by Bally’s Corp. last year. The one-time regional operator now owns casinos in eight states and has expanded its portfolio to include iGaming, sports betting, regional sports networks, and daily fantasy sports.
Bally’s Corp. has committed to investing at least $90 million in Atlantic City over five years, with an estimated $25 million in 2021 alone.
“This company has a vision and they walk the talk,” said Polcino. “But, I’ve got a lot to work with here, too. We have a great team in place.”
Welcome (back) to Bally’s Atlantic City
To say bringing Bally’s Atlantic City back to a place of relevance is personal for Polcino would be an understatement. In 1979, he made his bones as a 26-year-old craps dealer on the same gaming floor he now oversees.
But, he’s not alone in his Atlantic City roots. Bally’s CEO George Papanier is a Rowan University graduate who worked for both Trump Plaza and Resorts. Phil Juliano, Bally’s Corp’s VP and CMO, is an Atlantic City native who had stints at several casinos, including Resorts and the AC Hilton.
“I didn’t come here to fail,” Polcino said. “George, Phil, and those guys, they didn’t come here to fail. It’s not happening.”
Last summer, Papanier, Juliano, and other company executives testified before the state Casino Control Commission. They spoke at length about the company’s passion for the project and commitment to Atlantic City.
“We want to make sure Bally’s is competitive again and return it to its former glory,” said Marc Crisafulli, executive vice president of strategic development and government relations for Bally’s Corp. “We’re committed to making it a signature property again, right at the center of the Boardwalk…We know it’s going to take a lot of time, effort, and investment.”
The big picture at Bally’s Atlantic City
No one is under the impression that turning things around at Bally’s AC is going to be easy or happen quickly. Polcino said he expects a three- to five-year reclamation project.
“It’s a huge property,” he said. “And it’s a huge undertaking because it’s been let go.”
The investment at Bally’s AC will happen in phases. Guests will see improvements to hotel rooms, the lobby, and the lobby bar sometime this year. Upgrades to meeting and convention areas, as well as the pool and spa, are on the to-do list.
“Right now, we’re doing some cosmetic changes that are needed,” due to years of neglect, Polcino said. “The rest (of the overall investment) is the outside, and that will come probably in year three.”
Bally’s AC recently unveiled a brand-new FanDuel Sportsbook, putting NJ’s leading sportsbook right on the casino floor.
— Bally's AC (@BallysAC) April 6, 2021
Bally’s also has plans to introduce new restaurant concepts to the property. The old Arturo’s space will be home to Jerry Longo’s Meatballs & Martinis. Water Dog Smoke House, a Ventnor-based restaurant that is a local favorite, will take over where Bucca di Beppo was. Guy Fieri’s Chophouse is staying put.
“It’s starting to take shape,” Polcino said of Bally’s big picture plans for the property.
The city of lost pride
The success of Bally’s AC will ultimately depend on a few factors.
Some of them — COVID-19, competition, consumer behaviors — are outside of the casino’s control. Others, such as property investment and maintenance, player reward offerings, and the overall guest experience, are entirely in their hands.
There is one challenge Polcino identified that won’t cost a dime to correct. But, it’s going to take a total buy-in from Bally’s employees, many of whom have been beaten down over the years as the casino hotel around them deteriorated.
“Pride. The workers have lost pride in the city,” he said. “They have no pride in what they do.”
Polcino said when he was dealing craps, there was a certain level of prestige, if you will, in telling people what you did for a living at Bally’s or the other AC gambling parlors. Now, people are hesitant to say they are desk clerks or dishwashers or porters.
But, those jobs are necessary for the day-to-day operations of a casino hotel.
The GM said guests wouldn’t notice if he was gone for weeks on end. But, remove a dishwasher on a Saturday night and the whole property knows. That’s how important those jobs are and Polcino wants to instill that pride in team members again.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a dealer, being a good one, and making it into a career. There’s nothing wrong with being the best EVS guy,” he said. “As long as you take pride and passion in what you do … that’s how we all succeed.”