Things looking up for Atlantic City in 2018
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - The last traces of President Donald Trump's onetime casino empire could vanish. Someone may finally buy and reopen the former Revel casino. (Or maybe not.) The U.S. Supreme Court could legalize sports betting nationwide, drastically expanding the gambling industry.
A much-loathed state takeover of power is expected to end, internet gambling continues to grow at a healthy clip, and New Jersey now appears years away from trying again to open a casino in the northern Meadowlands - if it ever tries at all.
Things are definitely looking up for Atlantic City in 2018, a southern New Jersey city that is years overdue for a big win.
"I'm extremely optimistic about Atlantic City and the industry in 2018," said Mark Giannantonio, president of Resorts, which was the first U.S. casino to open outside Nevada and will celebrate its 40th anniversary in May. "We're very excited about the renaissance of Atlantic City; we think it's for real."
The single biggest story in Atlantic City in the new year will be the reopening of the former Trump Taj Mahal as a Hard Rock casino resort in the summer.
Hard Rock chairman Jim Allen promises the Atlantic City project will be all about music and seven-days-a-week entertainment. He has recruited guitar whiz and "Sopranos" actor Steven Van Zandt as an adviser on ventures that could include beach concerts and smaller indoor performances, as well as big-name concerts.
Hard Rock bought the Taj from billionaire investor Carl Icahn in March, who had shut it down in October 2016 following a bitter strike with the city's main casino workers' union.
Icahn also figures prominently in the disposition of the last remnants of the Atlantic City legacy of Trump, his friend and fellow billionaire. Icahn plans to tear down the former Trump Plaza casino on the boardwalk at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway to make way for an as-yet undefined economic development project.
The demolition could happen in 2018, but Icahn's request to use $5.6 million in state investment credits toward the $13.2 million demolition has met with opposition from state Senate President Steve Sweeney, who called on the state to reject the request, leaving the timetable uncertain.
At the northern end of the boardwalk, 2018 could finally be the year the star-crossed former Revel casino reopens. Colorado developer Bruce Deifik leads a group planning to buy it for $200 million and reopen it. The group shared its plans with Moody's Investors Service, which reported the would-be owners will invest an additional $175 million into the property, which closed in 2014 after little more than two years of operation.
Yet despite growing evidence that a sale is nearing, Glenn Straub, the Florida millionaire who owns Revel, insists he has no deal to sell it to anyone. He is still waiting for a state appeals court to rule on whether he needs a casino license in order to reopen the property.
One thing to watch closely: Can Atlantic City's casino market handle the reopening of two casinos that shut down so recently without harming some of the seven current operators in a slimmed-down market? Five of the city's 12 casinos closed from 2014 to 2016, and the surviving casinos have stabilized their revenue and earnings; analysts are mixed on the potential impact of reopening more casinos.
David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, said the new competition could hurt the seven casinos that currently operate but benefit customers with more choices.
Giannantonio acknowledged that two reopened casinos could cause "a short-term blip for everyone," but said they should bring in enough new customers to grow the market and not just steal customers from existing casinos.
One big opportunity: the U.S. Supreme Court will rule sometime between now and June on New Jersey's case seeking to legalize sports betting; it's legal only in four states that met a 1991 deadline to approve it: Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon.
And one big potential threat faded last month when Sweeney, the state senate president, told The Associated Press that he doesn't plan to seek a second statewide referendum on whether to allow a casino in northern New Jersey "anytime soon, if ever." Sweeney, a southern New Jersey Democrat, said he doesn't see sufficient support for the measure, which was rejected by nearly 80 percent of voters in a 2016 ballot question.
November 2018 is the earliest proponents can try again to place the matter before voters. But even Jeff Gural, who operates the Meadowlands Racetrack, where the new casino would go, can't see a second attempt for at least another five years or so.
There will be some new nearby competition in February when Resorts World opens a casino in Sullivan County, New York, about an hour north of New Jersey.
Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC