|By Donald Wittkowski, The Press of
Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Feb. 23, 2011--ATLANTIC CITY -- Hard Rock International is soliciting architectural and engineering firms as it prepares to assemble a development team for what would be Atlantic City's first boutique-style casino hotel.
This is the strongest indication the company is moving ahead with the project since Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation Jan. 5, allowing construction of two new smaller, more inexpensive Boardwalk casinos.
Hard Rock, parent company of the music-themed casinos of the same name, has been proceeding quietly, making no public announcements and declining to comment. However, state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, confirmed Tuesday that Hard Rock is seeking formal proposals for architectural and engineering services for the casino. He did not know whether Hard Rock has hired any firms.
"They're in the process of selecting a development team, so this indicates that they're serious," said Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor who was the chief sponsor of the boutique casino legislation.
Whelan added that he has not spoken to Hard Rock in a few weeks, but said the company has been telling him all along that "they are on course" for building the project.
"My hope is that they're going to make an announcement," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, the sooner the better. It's not going to be next week -- maybe next month or the next couple of months."
Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, has not publicly discussed the project for months. His office declined to comment Tuesday. Allen told The Press of Atlantic City in October that Hard Rock has plans for a $400 million to $450 million casino in partnership with the New York-based investment group Och-Ziff Real Estate.
Hard Rock, Allen said then, would start by building 200 or 300 hotel rooms, eventually expanding to 500. The casino is planned at the southern end of the Boardwalk, at the foot of the Route 40 entryway near the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort.
The new legislation allows for one casino of just 200 rooms. The second, smaller-scale casino authorized by the bill calls for a "staged" project that would start at 200 rooms but expand up to 500.
Previously, the minimum requirement for an Atlantic City casino hotel was 500 rooms. The threshold was lowered in hopes of jump-starting the city's construction-starved economy. Whelan and other supporters of the legislation believe that a new generation of smaller casinos will be more affordable to build and easier to finance. Labor unions say casino construction of any kind will create jobs for an industry suffering from double-digit unemployment.
Boutique casinos are part of Christie's broader recovery plan for Atlantic City, now mired in a four-year slump. The governor signed a legislative package Feb. 1 that created a new state-run Tourism District and overhauled New Jersey's gaming regulations to make it cheaper for casinos to operate.
Christie also was instrumental in the approval this month of $261.4 million in state tax reimbursements to help Revel Entertainment Group secure $1.15 billion in financing to complete its half-built Boardwalk megacasino.
A Hard Rock casino would give Atlantic City one of the most recognizable brands in the gaming and entertainment industries. The company operates 15 casino hotels and more than 130 Hard Rock cafes around the world.
Although Hard Rock appears to be committed to Atlantic City, no serious proposals have been made yet for the second boutique casino, Whelan noted.
"It's been nothing to the level of Hard Rock," he said. "We've had some casual inquiries. I wouldn't even describe it as kicking the tires."
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