|By Donald Wittkowski, The Press of
Atlantic City, Pleasantville, N.J.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 23, 2011--ATLANTIC CITY -- Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta has a Texas-size challenge ahead of him -- reviving an aging, money-losing casino in the slumping Atlantic City market.
Fertitta, however, is already boasting that his acquisition of Trump Marina Hotel Casino will lead to one of the city's top gaming resorts. For starters, he is bringing the iconic Golden Nugget name back to Atlantic City and will sink $100 million into the property for a badly needed face-lift.
"We're building a facility here that will compete against anybody else in town," Fertitta declared Monday while outlining his plans to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
As expected, the commission granted final regulatory approval for Fertitta's privately held Landry's Inc. to buy Trump Marina for $38 million. Landry's, a Houston-based gaming, restaurant and entertainment conglomerate, will officially take over the casino 6 a.m. Tuesday. The company already owns the Golden Nugget casinos in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev.
This will be the first time since Donald Trump entered the Atlantic City casino market in 1984 that his famous name has been erased from a casino. Landry's is in the process of removing the last vestiges of the Trump era as it prepares to turn the casino into a Golden Nugget property. Temporary banners beckoning customers to the new Golden Nugget will go up Tuesday.
The venerable Golden Nugget name is returning to Atlantic City after a nearly 25-year absence, although on a different casino. What is now the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort opened in 1980 as the Golden Nugget, then owned by Las Vegas gaming mogul Steve Wynn. The Golden Nugget name vanished when Wynn sold the casino to Bally Manufacturing Corp. for $440 million in 1987. Trump Marina will now become the latest version of Golden Nugget.
Recalling the Hilton's glory days as the Golden Nugget, an attorney for the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement expressed hope that Trump Marina's sale can be a starting point for the recovery of the troubled Atlantic City market.
"Perhaps this Golden Nugget, in the hands of Mr. Fertitta, will be a harbinger of things to come," said James C. Fogarty, a deputy state attorney general.
The casino will be refurbished inside and out in coming months. New restaurants, bars, live entertainment, retail shops and a lavish spa top the list of nongaming attractions that Landry's will build. A new poker room, keno room and simulcasting parlor will liven up the casino action. Landry's also will spruce up the building's drab exterior.
"It is not going to have that hospital look anymore," Fertitta said. "It will look like a totally different building. You will not recognize this property come December."
Landry's previously talked about spending $150 million for renovations, but Fertitta said the first phase of construction is likely to cost closer to $100 million. The company is already discussing expansion plans, including the possibility of building a new hotel tower to draw more overnight guests and conventions.
Golden Nugget plans to hire new employees as its new attractions come online. Most of the casino's existing 1,500-member work force will stay, and no one is being asked to take a pay cut, Fertitta said.
Trump Marina was the weakest of the three casinos owned by Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. It lost nearly $2.3 million in the first quarter of this year and was $8.3 million in the red for all of 2010. Analysts had predicted Trump Marina would have likely closed if Landry's had not rescued it.
Landry's was able to scoop up the casino at just a fraction of the $316 million sale price that a would-be buyer nearly paid in 2008, before the recession sent Atlantic City real estate plunging in value. The shaky economy and competition from Pennsylvania's casinos have driven down Atlantic City's gaming revenue four years in a row.
Linda M. Kassekert, chair of the Casino Control Commission, said Trump Marina's sale will be pivotal for reinvigorating the Atlantic City market. She called the property's rebranding "a stunning transformation."
"The rebranding of Trump Marina to Golden Nugget will help regain the property's niche as a destination luxury casino resort," Kassekert said. "With the combination of additional marketing and an overhaul of the property to a recognized brand, Mr. Fertitta will redefine the property for the new generation of Atlantic City patrons."
The Trump Marina takeover will test Fertitta's reputation as a turnaround artist. The 53-year-old businessman, who oversees a multibillion-dollar empire of casinos, restaurants and entertainment attractions in 31 states, has a knack for salvaging underperforming properties. In Las Vegas, he invested $300 million in the Golden Nugget to transform what had been a woefully outdated casino into an upscale gaming resort.
Fertitta will bring some of his Landry's-owned restaurant brands to the Golden Nugget. The first one to open, a Chart House seafood restaurant, will make its debut Thursday. A Vic and Anthony's Steakhouse will follow in late July.
Golden Nugget will vie with powerhouse neighbors Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and Harrah's Resort for business in the Marina District, across town from the Boardwalk casino zone.
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