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Atlantic City: The New Las Vegas?

Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Rudy Giuliani, Nov/Dec 01

A couple of miles west of the famed Boardwalk in Atlantic City, the steel shell of a new hotel rises like a monument to dreams, some unfulfilled, some still taking shape.

In gaming company boardrooms across the country and in the casino offices of this East Coast resort, the rumblings are in full swing about just what The Borgata, a billion-dollar hotel palace, will do for the once dilapidated but now relatively prosperous gambling mecca.

At first glance, there's no question that the project has triggered a wave of other investments. In a city where no new significant construction had taken place for nearly 10 years, the transformation is startling. There's a $300 million tower of rooms at the Tropicana; a multimillion-dollar pier project at Caesars with shops and restaurants; a new hotel room tower at Harrah's; and three mega-luxury villas for high rollers at the Hilton. The Sands is getting renovated. Claridge, newly acquired by Park Place Entertainment, the operators of Bally's and Hilton, is set to undergo a sweeping renovation and upgrade.

But just below the surface there's a wellspring of skepticism that the new developments can ever alter the basic nature of Atlantic City -- a magnet for a middle-market crowd that produces some of the highest gambling revenues on the planet. Until recently, the 12 casinos in Atlantic City typically produced gambling revenue on par with the 27 casinos on the Strip in Las Vegas. With that kind of performance, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some casino operators in Atlantic City resisted the early stages of The Borgata's development, which by its very upscale concept promised to force other operators into new, and expensive, investments. One big-time player, Donald Trump, threw up obstacles at every turn of the process. While Trump himself is now publicly supportive of the plan, Mark Brown, the president and chief executive of the Trump Hotel and Casino Resorts, is clear about the long-term prospects: "Atlantic City will never be Las Vegas. We just have to make sure we continue to do as well as we have."

Robert Boughner, the chief executive of The Borgata, which is being erected by Boyd Gaming Corp. with an investment from Kirk Kerkorian's MGM Mirage company, isn't ready to accept the status quo, declaring "Atlantic City will become much more of an overnight destination than it has in the past."

Other casino executives echo that sentiment, believing at least in part that the new hotel will expand the market, and begin to fill new direct flights that are planned into Atlantic City's airport from places like Chicago and Detroit and other major cities. But there's less certainty in those executives' voices when they begin to speculate about whether a newly invigorated Atlantic City will draw the whales, the extremely wealthy gamblers from places like Asia or Latin America, or even Silicon Valley and Seattle.

The two visions of Atlantic City exist side by side. No one is willing to gamble that doing nothing is the right answer. But no one is willing to abandon, or even dramatically alter, Atlantic City's traditional appeal to a market that has proven to be so lucrative.

With good reason. A recent visit to Atlantic City on Friday the 13th shows why: the place is mobbed.

"I don't believe in bad luck," says Harry, an 80-year-old high roller from Westchester County, New York, in for his usual weekend of craps. "Bad days, good days, yes -- but not luck." He's taking a dinner break in a restaurant overlooking the baccarat tables. With him is Tom Fiore, the Taj's senior vice president for national marketing -- the guy who gets to schmooze premier players like Harry, making sure they bring their business to the Taj and enjoy every amenity there, except winning too frequently.

Winningswise, says Harry, this hasn't been a good year. So it helps that the penthouse suite -- with panoramic views of the Boardwalk and the ocean that almost make Atlantic City look attractive -- is free, along with the vintage French wine, the briny oysters and the thick porterhouse steaks done pink, just the way he likes them. Harry deserves regal treatment. "Eighteen years ago, he was placing $25 bets," explains Fiore, 39, who has choirboy looks but gains a decade in toughness when he talks shop. "Now, he's up to $10,000 a roll." Fiore is tired. He's just flown back from the Midwest, where he visited a 68-year-old player who lost a million dollars after 31 straight hours at the Taj's blackjack tables. "Wonderful guy -- I just wish I could have spent more time with him," says Fiore. Harry's response: "Yeah, so he can come back and lose another million."

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