Thursday is a momentous day for Atlantic City, the biggest the New Jersey shore has hosted in quite some time. Two shuttered Boardwalk casinos have been granted a new lease on life, set to reopen under new ownership today.
And new branding.
They’ve already cut the ribbons, though. Gaming regulators granted both properties early approval on Wednesday afternoon, so both opened their doors for a soft launch. Ceremonial openings still happened today though.
Hard Rock Atlantic City
Hard Rock is aiming to restore Atlantic City’s most iconic property to its former glory.
Opened in 1990, the Trump Taj Mahal was built on a $1 billion investment from President Donald Trump — back when he was just a wealthy businessman. The palatial, gold-tinged casino became the face of NJ gambling for a couple decades.
That doesn’t mean it was profitable though. A string of four bankruptcies ended when billionaire Carl Icahn took ownership in 2016, but he was unable to keep the doors open. Labor issues forced him to put a for-sale sign on the window a year later. Hard Rock purchased the Taj on clearance for just $50 million.
Read more about the history of the property here.
The asking price was a bargain, but Hard Rock invested another $500 million to make the property presentable once again. The minarets are gone, and the gaudy paint has been covered up with a more tasteful, modern palette. The new look is clean and contemporary and on-brand for the group’s other properties.
Hard Rock AC will be the first to “open” this morning at 11 a.m., marked by a guitar smash that has become a staple for the brand. The press conference begins around 90 minutes prior, hosted by chairman Jim Allen.
Chairman Jim Allen opens the proceedings
A few minutes after 9:30 a.m., the chairman took the podium to address the dozens of media in attendance.
Allen kept his remarks short, running through the timeline as a slide appeared on the projector screen. Here were some of the bullet points listing what guests can expect at Hard Rock AC:
- 2,000 upscale hotel rooms
- 2,200 slot machines and 120 gaming tables
- More than 20 dining and nightlife options
- Two entertainment theaters with over 8,000 combined seats
- 300+ nights of entertainment already booked
Other attractions include a Howie Mandel comedy club, an installation of the Rock Spa & Salon, and the largest collection of music memorabilia of any Hard Rock location in the world. There’s no sportsbook yet, but it’s coming soon.
“We are just amazingly excited about the opening of the Hard Rock here in Atlantic City,” Allen beamed. “Not just this building, but truly the bridge to a revitalization of Atlantic City.”
A new casino gem for Atlantic City
The ongoing recovery of the NJ casino market came up frequently during the hourlong press conference. Hard Rock hired about 3,900 new employees, and Allen thinks the property “will be the catalyst” for rejuvenating the industry.
“We believe this project will create a new Renaissance in the future and the expansion and the excitement of Atlantic City going back to being one of the great entertainment cities in the United States,” he said.
“When we first purchased this building, we promised you that we would not just paint it and put a guitar on the wall… How do you think we did?”
The ballroom responded with applause. Hard Rock spent a half-billion dollars renovating the property, with tens of millions more in its marketing budget. The investment shows, and it speaks to the underlying financial health of the new owners.
“This is a financially sound project,” Allen continued. “We do not have outside debt. We do not have to worry about bond holders and interest payments and all those things that, frankly, has been some of the troubling things that have occurred in Atlantic City in the past.”
Allen fielded questions before everyone migrated to Etess Arena for a proper opening ceremony.
Q&A with the press
Below are some highlights from the Q&A session with the media.
On job creation:
“We actually had over 50,000 job applications. Pretty amazing. I think that demonstrates two things — the excitement and the interest in our brand, and unfortunately, there were a lot of people in this area looking for work. So we’re very proud.
And obviously with the Ocean Resort opening, immediately we have almost 10,000 jobs… You combine that with the Stockton College project, things are good.”
On charging guests to park:
“There is no charge for parking today and as we get through opening weekend, but very candidly we are concerned about the volume. We want to try to get people into the building as easily as possible…
“If you’ve walked the parking garage — and we certainly don’t want to be disrespectful to the previous owners — but it was in pretty sad shape. You look at it now, frankly it’s been completely redone, completely painted, completely relit. All the elevators, all the landings, all redone.
So we think we have a product there that will rival anything in Atlantic City.”
“While there has been a few sports betting windows open… we understand that the market is actually more favorable on a handheld device — or your smartphone, if you will.
Nobody has that technology approved yet by the DGE. We are in that process, so we’ll be making some announcements probably sometime in the next 30 to 60 days as far as how we’re going to do that.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney shows up
A few minutes before the end of the press conference, NJ Senate President Steve Sweeney arrived to the dais. Although he was not scheduled to speak, Allen insisted.
Here’s what Sweeney what he had to say:
“I’m just so excited to be here. You know, Atlantic City had some really dark days. And as I said, the Jersey guys are here. And we should be proud of that. And look at what they’ve done. They’ve invested $500 million in this facility and brought it back to life.
There’s so much excitement… they’re talking about a million people being in Atlantic City this weekend. We’re on the rise, and we couldn’t have done it without Hard Rock. And I want to thank the Seminole Tribe, too, for their trust.
We made some really, really tough decisions in Atlantic City over the years. Not all of them were popular, but all of them are proving now that they work. We’ve reduced the cost, we’re trying to clean the city up, we’re working with a new administration to move forward.
The only way you’re ever going to get investments like this is when people have the understanding that government is not the way it was. It’s going to be a new way. Atlantic City was really govern-less for a long time, and we’re moving forward. Were going to get things done.
On behalf of the state of New Jersey, we are so, so appreciative of the investment — of the excitement… I can’t think you enough for having the confidence and the faith to give Atlantic City another chance. We’re back, guys! Thank you.”
Smashing guitars in Etess Arena
Following the press conference, the media migrated down to Etess Arena for the public ceremony and the traditional smashing of the guitars — the Hard Rock version of a ribbon cutting.
The updated music venue is stunning, and it speaks to the entertainment side of the brand. Estimating it to be more than half full, there were at least 4,000 people inside the arena.
Allen took the podium again after a brief stage performance, restating most of what he’d told the media beforehand.
Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola also addressed the crowd, as did several other members of the nation. A tribal prayer opened the proceedings.
One person receiving special recognition was Rita Gilliam — Hard Rock employee number one. She’s been with the company since 1971, and she lit up the crowd up with a fiery speech delivered in a proper British accent.
Allen then proceeded to call a group of guitar-hating celebrities on stage, including actor Michael B. Jordan and drummer Max Weinberg. With that, the smashing commenced:
Ocean Resort Casino
Real-estate developer Bruce Deifik now owns the biggest, newest, most-striking Atlantic City casino.
The $2.4 billion property first opened in 2012 as Revel, and it was nothing short of a complete disaster. Like the Taj, it was bankrupt within a year, then bankrupt again a year later. Morgan Stanley walked away from the project after investing almost a billion dollars.
It was partially a case of bad timing. The city (and country) was mired in recession during construction and opening, but the property itself was a travesty of casino design and implementation. It never really had a chance. Revel closed the day before its second anniversary.
Developer Glenn Straub acquired Revel in 2015 for just $82 million, but he was no white knight. Failing to acquire a casino license or bring any of his wild ideas to fruition, Straub unloaded his renamed TEN for $200 million this January.
Read more about the history of the property here.
I didn’t see Revel during the short time it was open, so I don’t have a basis for comparison other than old photos. But the redesigned Ocean is a cathedral of a casino that would be right at home in Las Vegas. The 10-floor gaming/entertainment area is topped by a 47-story hotel tower, making it the second-tallest building in New Jersey.
The Ocean came to life today at 1 p.m. Deifik was there to host the press conference. AC Mayor Frank Gilliam was also there.
Owner and ‘Head Ambassador’ Bruce Deifik gives the introductions
Hundreds and hundreds of folks packed the Boardwalk behind the property for the opening event.
“I’m not sure the Boardwalk has ever been this busy on this side of town,” Deifik began. “But that’s about to change.”
That was just about all he had to say before turning the microphone over to Mayor Frank Gilliam.
Mayor Frank Gilliam welcomes Deifik, Ocean
Here’s the mayor:
“This is truly a monumental moment for Atlantic City. Not only did we open one, we’re opening two casinos in one day. It gives me great pleasure to stand before you in partnership with Bruce Deifik and his family, welcoming the Hyatt brand to Atlantic City, and also ushering into a new era of Atlantic City.
Because we have partners that are committed to the community, not just the four walls of the establishment, it gives me great honor and pleasure to welcome Ocean Resort and the Deifik family to become part of Atlantic City’s family. We’re creating history as we speak.
As you look out and see the beautiful backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean and the infamous Boardwalk, Atlantic City is truly back in the game.”
Gilliam presented the Deifik family with a mayoral proclamation showing that his city is “110 percent behind the success of Ocean Resort.”
Gov. Phil Murphy ended up missing the press conference, but Sen. Chris Brown spoke briefly on his behalf.
Mark Wahlberg flipping burgers at Ocean
“I think we should get Mark up here,” Deifik pointed to Mark Wahlberg standing beside him at the podium.
Apart from being one of the most recognizable artist-actors in the world, Wahlberg is behind the Wahlburgers restaurant chain, which will soon have a franchise inside the Ocean.
“I’m honored to be here,” he began.
“It’s such an amazing opportunity for everybody to be part of the community, to be part of our family, and to share our family experience with the families of Atlantic City and people who come from all over the world to visit this great destination.
It’s really an honor and a privilege for us to be part of it.”
Wahlburgers will be open in about a month.
Ribbon cutting, closing remarks from Deifik
Once the presentation was over, Deifik and a few others stepped down the stairs toward a big blue ribbon that was draped across the path leading to the property. He gave it a snip with an oversized pair of scissors, marking the ceremonial opening.
In the scrum that followed, Deifik spoke about his feelings with PlayNJ:
“It hasn’t been a straight line, this journey. It’s zigged and zagged along the way. So it’s very gratifying to see. And the 3,300 team members, we’re all ambassadors.
I kind of got emotional at my gaming hearing. I just couldn’t help it because it was very emotional. They said, hey, what a great end to your journey.
I said excuse me. It’s the start of the journey, you know?”