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Some Bright Spots in a Tough Year for Atlantic City Casinos

By Chuck Darrow, Philadelphia Daily NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

December 26, 2008 - --ANY COLUMN recapping the last 12 months in Atlantic City's gambling industry should probably be printed in red.

After all, the seaside adult playground suffered -- and continues to suffer -- from the worst economic downturn in the 30-year history of New Jersey's legal casinos. Thanks to the "perfect storm" of a national economy in tatters, a partial smoking ban -- which was briefly a total ban last fall -- and intense competition from slot houses in Pennsylvania that has severely cut into AyCee's core market, the town's 11 gaming halls took it on the collective chin.

Even Borgata, the ultra-luxe resort that reinvented the Atlantic City wheel when it opened in 2003 and set the pace financially and every other way since then, hasn't been immune: A couple of months ago, the Big B was forced to lay off 400 employees and close Specchio, its Italian gourmet room.

The hit has been so bad that casino-hotels that don't yet exist have been affected. Three mega-resort projects -- MGM Grand, Pinnacle Entertainment and the one proposed by Curtis Bashaw (who in July did open the Chelsea, a high-end, noncasino "boutique" hotel) and former casino chieftain Wally Barr -- were put on indefinite hold.

A fourth, Revel Entertainment's pleasure dome adjacent to the Showboat, is proceeding, although not all of the financing is in place.

But all was not doom and gloom in 2008. For instance, although the casinos are looking at a year-to-year revenue drop in the 7 percent to 8 percent range, they still would have won several billion dollars from gamblers when all is said and done. And there were a number of bright spots on the bleak landscape.

One cause for celebration was Atlantic City's continuing effort to establish itself as a culinary capital. The year saw the opening of a six-pack of pedigreed eateries: Il Mulino New York (Taj Mahal), Patsy's (Atlantic City Hilton), Izakaya (Borgata) and McCormick & Schmick's (Harrah's) opened under casino roofs, while Philly's uber restaurateur Stephen Starr brought Chelsea Prime and Teplitzky's to the Chelsea.

Even without the introduction of any new properties, the casino hotel-room inventory grew by some 2,500 units as the Waterfront Tower (whose exterior is, according to the company, the world's largest LED sign), the Water Club and the Chairman Tower opened at Harrah's, Borgata and Taj Mahal, respectively.

For some, one of the most optimistic occurrences of the year was the announcement that the perennially beleaguered Trump Marina is being sold by Trump Entertainment Resorts. The new owner, New York-based Coastal Development LLC, intends to apply Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville brand to the soon-to-be-refurbished complex.

And Atlantic City continued to be a show business hub, as numerous A-List acts -- among them Madonna, the Eagles, the Who, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, teen sensations the Jonas Brothers, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal -- hit gaming hall stages (mostly at Borgata's Event Center).

Extended-run production shows, while not as predominate as they once were, continued to offer solid, variety-style entertainment. The very best of the lot was "Pop Goes Broadway," a summertime program at Harrah's starring '80s-popster-turned-song-and-dance-woman Deborah Gibson.

The casinos also helped Atlantic City strengthen its status as a nightlife capital. No new discos went on line, but danceterias like The Casbah at the Taj Mahal, Providence (Tropicana), The Pool After Dark (Harrah's) and mixx and mur.mur (Borgata) offered top regional, national and international disc-spinners, including DJ AM, who survived a recent plane crash, Lindsay Lohan paramour Samantha Ronson and megastar mix-master Tiesto).

They also hosted special guest appearances from hot-'n'-hip actors (the cast of "Entourage") and famous-for-being-famous types like Kim Kardashian and Iggles fan Kendra Wilkinson.

Perhaps the biggest nightclub hit of the year was Boogie Nights at Resorts Atlantic City. It began Thanksgiving weekend of '07 as a holiday-weekend-only operation, but its savvy 1970s and '80s pop-culture nostalgia theme was an immediate hit, and by January it had moved to an every-Saturday schedule (as well as selected Friday nights).

In all, it was certainly a year casino execs would prefer to forget, but one that wasn't all bad.

One more thing

From me and mine to you and yours, here's hoping the new year brings you peace, good health, happiness and prosperity.

Or, as we say at the poker table, may you always flop the "nuts!"

Chuck Darrow has covered Atlantic City and the casino industry for more than 20 years. Read his blog at

>http://go.philly.com/casinotes. Or e-mail him at darrowc@phillynews.com.

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To see more of the Philadelphia Daily News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.philly.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, Philadelphia Daily News

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