Little Steven (and Gov. Christie) usher in Hard Rock to Atlantic City
"We've seen the bottom," said builder Jack Morris, one of the developers of the planned Hard Rock Atlantic City casino that will replace the old Trump Taj Mahal. "Now we're going to see what we can do from here."
ATLANTIC CITY -- They had "Little Steven" Van Zandt as the celebrity rock star, Gov. Christie for the swoop-in-and-out politician cameo, and five members of the Seminole Tribe that owns Hard Rock International for a Trump shout-out.
But the heart of the big event Wednesday, formally announcing that Hard Rock International will transform the old Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, belonged to three more obscure New Jersey natives: Hard Rock CEO Jim Allen, and builders Joe Jingoli and Jack Morris.
For them, they said, the fate of Atlantic City is personal.
"When I walk down this Boardwalk and I see what has happened, I say, I've got to fix this," said Morris, who developed the old Garden State Park in Cherry Hill into shopping and houses. "I will try with all my heart to do just that. It's not just about rebuilding the Taj Mahal casino with one of the world's best hotel casinos. It's about Atlantic City.
"We've seen the bottom," he said. "Now we're going to see what we can do from here."
Those three spoke passionately, and personally, about a nearly $400 million project that is to create 3,000 jobs, an investment they hope will kick-start a renaissance for a resort town that has been kicked to the curb in recent years. They plan a summer 2018 opening with a hotel and casino that will have lost its minarets (and Trump signage) and gained a lot of guitars.
Morris even urged a smattering of applause for the old Boardwalk icon Mr. Peanut, who he recalled seeing as a child with his grandparents. He said 1,000 construction jobs would be created.
Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist and former star of The Sopranos, said that Atlantic City can come back and that Hard Rock would bring a community and environmental consciousness to the project that would help fulfill the failed promises of the early casino era.
"We've all talked about how Atlantic City started -- you know, it was supposed to involve the community, and it really failed to do that," Van Zandt said. "And I think this time around is a second rebirth, a second chance at that."
Still, Hard Rock's Allen assured bondholders that his company's main mission was to make money in Atlantic City, and that current operators here, despite the closure of five casinos since 2014, were profitable.
Mitchell Cypress, vice president of the Seminole Tribe, said it would work to fulfill the mission he ascribed to President Trump: create jobs.
The Taj Mahal, opened April 2, 1990, and billed by Donald Trump as the eighth wonder of the world, shut down last October after bankruptcy and a protracted strike. Billionaire owner Carl Icahn, who bought the Taj out of bankruptcy, sold the property to Hard Rock and the two builders last month. (Wednesday was also the anniversary of the grand opening of the Taj, three days after its actual opening.)
"Atlantic City no doubt has had some challenging times," he said. "It is still the second-largest gaming market in the United States. All of the operators here are profitable. We are very, very confident we can grow the market."
He said the Taj Mahal building itself was ripe for transformation. "The bones are tremendous in this building," he said.
The company plans extensive renovations -- "not just some new carpet," he said. And he plans to bring entertainment during the week to a town he says has gone dark midweek in recent years. There will be a spa, and the company's "The Sound of Your Stay" music amenity program with in-room Fender guitar checkouts.
"I have tremendous respect for my competitors, but Atlantic City's turned into a 1 1/2-night town," he said.
Christie said the Hard Rock investment was a sign that the state's involvement in the city's financial crisis was providing the right climate for business and for Atlantic City's turnaround. He refrained from the harsher rhetoric about Atlantic City government that has marked other appearances in a town the state took control of in November.
"This is an extraordinary brand that has come here to Atlantic City in a very big way," Christie said. "And that's great news. We've shown that we're committed to doing the hard things in Atlantic City. Before we started working together, only the easy things were done in Atlantic City. Not only from the state level but the local level. When you do the easy things for too long, it catches up to you."
Mayor Don Guardian also spoke, but after the governor had left. He described himself as "the most grateful person in the room," and said he was grateful for "anyone who had anything to do with bringing this back, including our governor."
Christie made a similar triumphant appearance to jump-start the failed Revel project five years ago, but as State Senate President Stephen Sweeney pointed out, Hard Rock International brings a leading casino operator with a stellar track record. "They're real, this is a real organization," Sweeney said.
The Taj Mahal branding, and its minarets, will disappear, Allen said. (The Trump name has already been removed from the outside.) The only thing that will remain from the Trump era is the name of the 6,000-seat Mark G. Etess Arena, named for a Trump executive killed in a plane crash. The arena itself will have a full acoustic overhaul. The Hard Rock Cafe will morph into a 400-seat venue with beach access, the company said.
There will be new restaurants and venues, redone rooms and lobby spaces. And a lot of guitars and memorabilia. The Hard Rock Cafe has operated in the Trump Taj Mahal for 20 years.
Van Zandt, the Springsteen guitarist who played Silvio Dante on The Sopranos and Frank Tagliano on Lilyhammer, asked if he had any thoughts about Atlantic City, laughed and said, "I've got a lot of thoughts, but let's just say I'm glad the Hard Rock's coming. It's going to elevate the entire area. That's what Jimmy Allen and the Seminole Indians do. They always make the entire area better."
He said Hard Rock's investment was a sure sign that Atlantic City could be revived. He said he and his band, and the bands he promotes through his Underground Garage channel on Sirius XM radio, would be regulars in Atlantic City.
"Oh, yeah," Van Zandt said. "Where they go, success follows, Believe me. They know what they're doing."
Here's video of Little Steven.
The state's overseer, the $400-an-hour Jeffrey S. Chiesa, was there, too, but he demurred on the issue of who gets credit. "It's not about credit," he said as Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money" played. "The climate right now is one that people feel comfortable with."
Guardian hedged his bet before the event on Christie claiming all the credit. "I don't think this is opening because the governor is paying people $400 an hour," he said.