Just because Atlantic City seems to be back on track with nine casinos, don’t assume that nine will be the grand total indefinitely. No, none of the casinos, including Ocean Casino Resort, which in its first few months of existence was barely staying afloat, is in danger of closing in the foreseeable future.
But the odds look good for another casino to open. Showboat is moving full speed ahead to give Atlantic City its 10th casino!
A brief history of the Showboat: 1987 to the present
Those who have followed the Atlantic City casino scene for a long time will recall that the Showboat Atlantic City existed as a casino hotel for 27 years. The property started out in March 1987 as a Mardi-Gras themed casino hotel. However, Caesars Entertainment (then Harrah’s Entertainment) acquired the property in 1998.
Then, over the years, the Showboat received many enhancements. But in the process, the original theme became less and less apparent.
Finally, in 2014, even though the Showboat was still showing a profit, Caesars decided to consolidate its holdings and close the property. On August 31, 2014, Showboat became the second of four Atlantic City casino casualties that year.
Showboat remained completely shuttered for nearly two years. Although Stockton Unversity had purchased the property from Caesars for $18 million in December 2014, intending to use it for a satellite campus, the plan fell through.
More than a year later, in January 2016, Philadelphia-based developer Bart Blatstein paid Stockton University $232 million and became the new owner. In June 2016, Showboat reopened to the public but as a stand-alone hotel without a casino.
New owner Bart Blatstein was initially fine with Showboat not having a casino
Of course, Blatstein agreed to Caesars’ terms not to reopen a casino on the property. But initially, Blatstein did not even want to open a casino there.
He had other irons in the fire, including converting a substantial number of rooms and suites at the Showboat to luxury apartments and attending to his other Atlantic City holdings. Among the latter was the Playground Pier he had purchased from Caesars.
Furthermore, the Trump Taj Mahal closed in October 2016, following a prolonged strike. That left Resorts--a long walk away–the closest still operating casino on the Boardwalk. So Batstein felt no sense of urgency to reintroduce casino gambling at the Showboat. But In 2018, Blatstein changed his mind
Early that year, two closed casino properties on either side of the Showboat–the Trump Taj Mahal and Revel–were already under new ownership and preparing to open soon as the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Ocean Resort Casino, respectively.
So understandably, Blatstein reevaluated his priorities.
Showboat would be ideally situated to attract spillover crowds from both new casinos since it was within easy walking distance of both. Players heading north along the Boardwalk from Hard Rock to Ocean or south along the Boardwalk from Ocean to Hard Rock would inevitably reach the Showboat first.
But without a casino, unless they were staying overnight at the Showboat, they would have little or no reason to go inside.
A year later, the NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement granted Blatstein a statement of compliance
Accordingly, as I reported in my March 26, 2919 article for NJ Gambling Websites, “Will Showboat Become Atlantic City’s 10th Casino?” in February 2018, Blatstein took the first preliminary step in the long process of applying for and being granted a casino operator’s license. He applied to the NJ Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE) for a statement of compliance.
However, NJ gaming regulators took their time before returning with a decision. The first order of business was to ensure that everything was in order for the scheduled opening of Hard Rock and Ocean.
But the introduction of legalized sports betting also kept them very busy. So Blatstein wound up waiting over a year. The Casino Control Commission finally issued a statement of compliance on March 18, 2019.
Blatstein impressed the Commission with his plans to cater to a young demographic by emphasizing sports and e-sports. He also assured the regulators that Caesars’ deed restriction, which is still in effect, wouldn’t be a problem because the new casino would be built on an adjacent lot rather than inside the Showboat itself.
However, the statement of compliance that Blatstein received is still just the start of the lengthy process that must be completed before Showboat can again offer a casino.
In fact, a whole year has gone by since the statement of compliance was issued without anything new to report—until two weeks ago.
Blatstein has sold the Playground Pier back to Caesars so he can make opening a casino at Showboat his top priority
According to a Jan. 28, 2020 article on www.pressofatlanticcity.com, Blatstein has sold the Playground Pier shopping and entertainment complex that he had purchased from Caesars Entertainment five years ago back to a Caesars Entertainment subsidiary.
A Caesars spokesperson has confirmed the sale. However, neither party divulged the price.
When Blatstein bought the pier complex from Caesars in 2015, he paid $2.7 million for what was then called The Pier Shops at Caesars. Blatstein renamed it The Playground in June 2015 after reportedly investing another $52 million in renovations.
A shell of what it once was, The Playground now resembles a ghost town
However, the results have been a big disappointment. Customer traffic is greatly reduced, the entertainment options failed to catch on and have mostly closed, and multiple retail outlets have also closed.
In addition, the plan to install an elevated pool overlooking the ocean never materialized. The lack of free or low-cost parking nearby has been another problem.
Well-known brands like the Apple Store, Tommy Bahama, and Gucci are long gone. Only 10 retail merchants remain along with four restaurants, a place to buy frozen drinks, a comedy club that is only open sporadically, and an office for booking on-site wedding receptions.
According to a Nov. 25, 2019 article on www.pressofatlanticcity.com, one visitor commented that the place is “like a ghost town.”
It remains to be seen if Caesars will have more success in bringing new life to the Playground than Blatstein has had. But in any case, Blatstein is relieved that the property is no longer his concern.
Blatstein says he is now ready to focus completely on opening a casino at Showboat
Blatstein had this to say about how he feels now after selling the Playground Pier back to Caesars.
“It’s all good. I’m very happy because I’m completely focused on the Showboat. Now there’s no distraction from what I’m going to do at Showboat. More than ever, I am extremely bullish on Atlantic City.”
Unfortunately, that’s all we can report for now, as Blatstein declined to provide specific details. However, he did say that he would have “an announcement in the not-too-distant future of a very significant development.”
As always, here at NJ Online Casino, we will keep you informed as soon as we learn more.
What is happening with the other two casino properties that closed in 2014 and are still closed?
Two of the five Atlantic City casino hotels that closed in the 2014-2016 period have been replaced. In fact, Hard Rock and Ocean Resort Casino (now Ocean Casino Resort) opened on the same day—June 27, 2018—so both will be celebrating their second anniversary in 2020.
Then there is Showboat, which is moving ahead with its plans to bring 10 casinos back to Atlantic City.
But that still leaves two more casino properties that closed in 2014–the Atlantic Club and Trump Plaza. Both buildings have stood vacant for more than five years.
The Atlantic Club
The Atlantic Club, located at the southern end of the Boardwalk, was the first of the four Atlantic City casinos to close in 2014. Over the years, the property underwent multiple ownership and name changes. But it never succeeded in recapturing its early glory as the Golden Nugget with Steve Wynn at the helm.
Ultimately, on January 14, 2014, the bankrupt property was forced to close. Shortly, thereafter, Caesars and Tropicana obtained possession, followed by TJM Properties later that year. TJM was more interested in finding a suitable new buyer than doing anything with the property itself. However, until last year, despite a string of prospective buyers, no sale materialized. So the neglected property just continued to stand there.
Finally, on Sept. 30, 2019, that TJM Properties sold the property to the New York City-based investment and construction firm Colosseo Atlantic City, Inc. for an undisclosed price.
A deed restriction preventing the new owner from opening a casino on the premises remains in effect, just as it does at Showboat. However, Colosseo indicated that after making the needed renovations, it plans to reopen the facility as a stand-alone hotel.
That sounds very nice. But more than four months have elapsed, and we have heard nothing at all about the design, number of rooms, amenities, and projected opening date, or even if it will still be called The Atlantic Club.
Trump Plaza, which closed on Sept. 16, 2014, is even more of an eyesore because it is situated smack in the middle of town. So it is one of the first structures that visitors driving to town on the Atlantic City Expressway see.
Carl Icahn gained control of the property in 2015. However, he has done nothing with it. Part of the problem was lingering deed issues, which were not resolved until January 2019 and precluded selling it.
Alternatively, Icahn considered having the building torn down. Trump Plaza was presumably slated for demolition over two years ago. However, progress stalled because Icahn has not applied for a demolition permit and his attempt to recoup investment alternative tax funds to help defray the cost was unsuccessful.
Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small, Sr. has indicated that one of his administration’s goals is to “tear Trump Plaza down.” He called the long-standing empty property “an embarrassment” a “blight on our skyline, and “the biggest eyesore in town.”
It is a shame that no one has come forward with the intent and capability of making Trump Plaza a usable facility again, given its ideal location. But if the only viable solution is to demolish it, it is better to do that than let it continue to languish and deteriorate.
Summary and conclusion
It is admirable that Bart Blatstein wants to restore casino gambling at the Showboat, that Colosseo Atlantic City wants to reopen the Atlantic Club as a nongaming hotel, and that Mayor Marty Small finally wants to get rid of the eyesore that is Trump Plaza. But, hopefully, in the course of 2020, we will see more progress along these lines than just talk.
As far as Showboat is concerned, I would love to see Blatstein succeed. However, I can’t say I am impressed by what he has done either at the Playground or the Showboat. The rooms and apartments at the Showboat may be very nice, but four years after the hotel reopened, it still offers no fine dining options and very little entertainment. When people come to a casino nowadays, they don’t just want to gamble. They want a full complement of amenities
Compounding my concern is the fact that Blatstein has no prior experience running a casino. Neither did former Ocean Casino Resort Bruce Deifik, and that was one of the reasons why that casino hotel got off to such a rough start.