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Casino union rep: Can't tell you how happy Taj sale makes me

Hard Rock is promising a total rebrand of the Trump Taj Mahal. Will the resurgence of Atlantic City be its first hit?

As news of the blockbuster sale of the former Trump Taj Mahal casino hotel to Hard Rock International spread Wednesday night, the view from the union whose acrimonious and stubborn strike was blamed by some for shutting the place down was, well, striking.

Here's a tweet from Diana Hussein, a communications specialist with Unite Here who worked in Atlantic City for the duration of the strike: "Can't put into 140 characters how happy news of the sale of the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City makes me. These emojis help:"

Those were happy, even ecstatic, emojis.

Perhaps, as the members of Local 54 -- the casino's bartenders, cocktail waitresses, and housekeepers -- had said all along, the long game would pay off.

Gone -- in a flurry of hastily issued statements -- was the Taj ownership that so infuriated the union -- not that of President Trump, whose name until recently graced the complex. Union members generally liked working for Trump, whose involvement in the casino he opened in 1990 ended years ago.

The villain of the union strike was billionaire Carl C. Icahn, whom union workers compared to Dracula and worse for taking away their health care and other rights when he bought the Taj Mahal out of bankruptcy. Icahn also owns the Tropicana and the shuttered Trump Plaza. He said he lost $100 million on the Taj.

The months-long, noisy strike, which became a must-see on summer bike rides for tourists on the Boardwalk, seemed to end in futility when Icahn shut down the place Oct. 10 rather than strike a deal.

But this deal -- a reported $300 million transaction with Hard Rock, which has recruited several top Borgata executives in recent months, and two local New Jersey developers, Joseph Jingoli and Jack Morris -- seemed to promise a renewed health at the casino Trump once called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Here's more formal reaction from Local 54 president Bob McDevitt: He stressed the union's goal was "good middle-class jobs," not "hollowed-out ones that don't allow families to live middle-class lives."

Will the next wonder be a revitalization of Atlantic City itself? The news was head-spinning.

Mayor Don Guardian quickly responded, pointing to the various seeds he's helped to plant around the city that may bear fruit: a new Stockton University campus (also being built by the Jingoli firm), new market-rate housing aimed at millennials, the extension of the Boardwalk around the Inlet, new bike paths, spruced-up parks (with public tennis courts, even) near the Absecon Lighthouse, a planned Observation Wheel at the Steel Pier across from the Taj.

"All the pieces are coming back together, one by one," Guardian said. "Now is the time to invest in our great city. The price is right."

More than an hour later, Gov. Christie followed suit, linking the sale to the state's actions to stabilize Atlantic City's finances.

Suddenly, what investor Glenn Straub does or, more likely, does not do with the Revel seemed less relevant.

Hard Rock, led by Atlantic City-area native Jim Allen, has long wanted back into the casino town. It continued to operate its Hard Rock Cafe attached to the shuttered Taj Mahal, and its executives were seen around town.

Allen told the Associated Press on Thursday that the company would still be interested in building a casino at the Meadowlands, an expansion of gaming outside Atlantic City that was rejected by voters in a referendum.

Jingoli, a charismatic and connected developer, has also long wanted in on a casino project. He tried to do a deal with Straub to take over the Revel, a newer and sleeker property than the aging Taj, but Straub wasn't selling.

Jingoli and Morris also teamed up to -- briefly -- become the designated redevelopers of the Inlet neighborhood that included Revel, but that deal was later undone by the City Council. Jingoli was part-owner of the energy plant that powered, and contributed to the bankruptcy of, Revel. He subsequently sold the plant to Straub for $30 million.

In the physical plant of the Taj, Jingoli and Hard Rock have their work cut out for them -- Guardian called it "structurally sound but definitely tired" -- but Icahn had begun to make improvements. It was always an audaciously scaled property, loved by customers and employees alike, a symbol of the rise and fall of Trump in Atlantic City, and also a glaring cautionary tale of both the potential and the listing of Atlantic City itself. Along with the Trump name, the minarets themselves could soon be history.

"The bones of the Taj Mahal are as good as anything in town," Allen told the AP, "and it's something we felt we could do something spectacular with, from the height of the ceilings to the way the casino floor is laid out."

Florida-based Hard Rock, owned by the Seminole tribe,  promised much of that $300 million would go toward substantial renovations and a total rebranding of the 17-acre property into Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, with an expected summer 2018 opening.

Will Atlantic City come back? Getting the Hard Rock execs and customer database back in the mix, thousands of workers back inside the building -- plus all the Hard Rock concerts -- makes it actually seem possible.