ATLANTIC CITY — There was, for once, a hopeful sign on the Boardwalk, as the Showboat, one of four casinos to close in the economic cratering of this seaside resort in 2014, reopened Friday as a non casino hotel.
It was a soft opening, with little fanfare, no balloons, no music, the former casino area off the lobby darkened and blocked off by a series of draperies with images of old Atlantic City postcards.
About 100 of the 852 rooms had been booked by midday, said Lisa Augustine, regional manager of operations, with more reservations trickling in. The hotel welcomes pets.
At 2 p.m., when the media was invited in, Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein, who bought the hotel for $20 million after a sale to Stockton University unraveled, was having lunch with his family in the Atlantic City Eatery: salads and salt and pepper fried calamari.
The hotel will also feature the return of the Worship Surf Bar on States Ave., open until midnight, and the Canal Street coffeehouse. Blatstein said he received a temporary liquor license for the weekend, though the restaurant's bar was not yet serving alcohol during the afternoon, and was anticipating a full liquor license by next week.
The Showboat will look to animate this north end of the Boardwalk, flanked on one side by the perplexingly not-yet-opened former Revel Casino, and by the noisy striking workers out front of the Trump Taj Mahal on the other. The casino workers were in their eighth day of the strike against billionaire Carl Icahn.
The 852 oceanfront rooms and suites open in three towers make the Showboat the largest non-casino hotel in New Jersey, Blatstein said. A former bar had been repurposed as a gym. The old House of Blues was empty and roped off, its big marquee still on the Boardwalk facade.
Formerly owned by the bankrupt Caesars Entertainment, the Showboat was shuttered on Labor Day weekend 2014, despite showing about $2 million in profits annually, a move that deeply upset longtime employees and customers. It followed the closing of the Atlantic Club in January of that year, and was followed by the closings of Revel and then Trump Plaza.
Bonnie Ingersoll, 57, of Mays Landing, who worked 28 years at Showboat, from the first day to the last, when she was an administrative supervisor overseeing scheduling of 600 table game dealers, said she was thrilled to be back working at the Showboat.
She said she took a lower paying job in EVS, environmental services, as a uniformed cleaner of the lobby and common areas, dustpan and broom in hand, just to be back at the workplace she loved, she said.
"It feels wonderful," Ingersoll said. "It was hard on a lot of people. I wanted to come back to Showboat so bad that it didn't matter that I wasn't in supervisory."
Lisa Augustine, regional manager of operations, said the property hired 208 people, many of them former employees though she did not give a number.
Blatstein said a more extensive rebranding of the property would happen in the future, and he said he would seek to aim the property at millennials.
Blatstein's other major investment in Atlantic City, the Pier at Caesars, which he turned into the Playground, has seen some rocky moments. Blatstein said Friday that the Wav Nightclub, which had occupied the former 39 North concert space that failed last summer, had once again "transitioned" and would now be a comedy club with other acts as well. The rest of the space features several bars and retail stores.
Atlantic City Councilman Marty Small stopped by, had some calamari with Blatstein, and said, "It removes one of the eyesores. It's a big day for the city of Atlantic City. It's a win."
Aleem Boatright, 46, a nuclear physicist from Maryland, and his father, Alfonso, a research chemist from Princeton, stopped by for lunch. Aleem said he had made reservations for Saturday night, as part of a large family reunion in Atlantic City. He said he had first tried to reserve at Revel, whose owner, Glenn Straub, has been saying repeatedly he would be reopening, but has not been able to pull that off yet.
He said he had had trouble finding the website earlier in the week. "They're making me work too hard," he said. The website, showboathotelac.com, has now gone live, and Showboat is showing up on other websites like Expedia.
Rooms were typically going for between $220 and $259 per night, thought the big suites, like the Bella Suite the media was shown, have room rates of about $1,200 a night (but spectacular views).
Elaina Ruggiero from Sewell booked a room with her two daughters, Analise, 14, and Carissa, 13, for a beach weekend. She even teared up a bit remembering how her mother used to gamble at Showboat, and take her down as a child to stay for a comped weekend. She found Showboat by chance on a website, and did not realize it was the first day back open.
She was surprised there was not more fanfare for an opening, she said, and said all the partitioned off and darkened sections were a little off putting. It was quiet when she arrived, a bit earlier than the official check in time, she said.
"It's odd that it's not a little more music," to herald the opening, she said, on her way to the beach.
Augustine said the property was in "very good condition," and that rooms mostly required mostly things like new drapes or carpeting. "They did a wonderful job of shutting it down," she said.