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New Proposal for Atlantic City's Boardwalk Bounceback
Stirs up Protests Within Casino Industry

By Howard Stutz, Las Vegas Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 28, 2010--Atlantic City has taken so many punches, it's starting to resemble one of New Jersey's native sons.

In the 1970s, boxer Chuck Wepner was known as the Bayonne Bleeder, nicknamed for both his hometown and a propensity to be cut easily. Wepner claims to have collected 326 stitches in his career, including 23 when he lost to Muhammad Ali in 1975.

Atlantic City can relate.

Increased competition from neighboring states, 18 straight months of declining gaming revenues and abandonment by major casino operators have landed enough jabs and body blows to Atlantic City that if this were a fight, a trainer would have tossed in the towel.

Now, a former mayor has come up with an idea that could give the market new life, but infighting within the casino industry could shelve the plan.

State Sen. James Whelan, a Democrat, will introduce legislation allowing four small casinos to be built in Atlantic City with at least 200 hotel rooms. The current minimum is 500 hotel rooms, but most of the 11 major resorts have at least 1,000 rooms.

Protests began immediately.

"I think it's a terrible idea," said Mark Juliano, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts, which has three casinos, including the 1,250-room Trump Taj Mahal. "To change the rules now when we're really hurting is not fair and it's not right."

The UNITE-HERE local in Atlantic City also came out against the idea.

The nongaming business community jumped behind Whelan's plan. New money might inject some vigor into a market in which casino revenues have slid 25 percent since 2006.

Wall Street also likes the plan. Union Gaming Group Principal Bill Lerner said the concept could counter competition in expanding markets.

"New capital investment in Atlantic City is critical in order to reverse the downward momentum," Lerner said. "A boutique solution may further penetrate the region or help Atlantic City grab a larger share of wallet."

Hard Rock International of Florida jumped on the news and said it would build a $300 million hotel-casino on a beachfront parcel along the Boardwalk.

Harrah's Entertainment, which has four casinos in Atlantic City, has not weighed in on the idea. Company spokesman Gary Thompson said a little more information is needed before an opinion can be rendered.

In January, Harrah's CEO Gary Loveman said an overhaul of the seaside gaming community was needed to avoid a steeper drop.

"If we don't do something to make it better, then it is going to continue to get more painful," Loveman said.

Howard Stutz's Inside Gaming column appears Sundays. He can be reached at hstutz@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/stutz.

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Copyright (c) 2010, Las Vegas Review-Journal

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