ATLANTIC CITY - The financially troubled Trump Marina Hotel Casino officially changed hands Monday, as the New Jersey Casino Control Commission gave unanimous approval to its sale to Houston-based Landry's Restaurants Inc.
And with that, Landry's chairman, CEO, and sole owner, Tilman J. Fertitta, let out a Texas-size sigh of relief, saying he was looking forward to transforming the 26-year-old casino into the Golden Nugget Atlantic City in a $100 million makeover.
"The Golden Nugget is going to be extremely competitive in this market," he told reporters after the vote. "There is no customer that we will not go after."
Fertitta said he was thrilled to be among the "Big Four," with his Golden Nugget joining the Borgata and Harrah's Resort in the Marina District and with Revel in creating a critical mass of destination properties that would encourage overnight customers to return to the Shore.
The sale of the casino by Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. to Landry's for about $38 million was announced Feb. 14, after two failed attempts to sell the property to New York-based Coastal Marina L.L.C. at a much higher price.
"I am optimistic that the arrival in Atlantic City of the successful Landry's and Golden Nugget brands will be a giant step toward a reinvigorated Atlantic City gaming market," commission chair Linda M. Kassekert said in announcing the 3-0 vote.
The casino had been operated as Trump Marina for more than a quarter-century. Last week, the Trump moniker was removed from the exterior in preparation for a six-month, $100 million renovation.
That is the projected cost for the first of three planned redesign phases, Fertitta said. Workers got started Monday, removing some signs and interior paneling.
Teddy and Peggy Lee of Woodland Park, N.J., paused Monday to look at the work going on near the principal escalators, after playing in the bingo hall on the main floor. The Lees said they had been coming to Trump Marina since its June 1985 opening and had watched its decline.
"It's dilapidated, so it needed something," said Peggy Lee, 75, as the couple strolled to one of the grab-and-go restaurants for lunch. "It will be a hit. They will need to do a lot of work, though."
Added Teddy Lee, 84: "The Donald didn't want to spend the money."
Fertitta said spending on capital improvements was a key part of his strategy to create new energy and excitement at the casino. He invested $300 million in the Las Vegas Golden Nugget after buying it in 2005; he also owns a third Golden Nugget, in Laughlin, Nev. A player card was being developed that would allow gamblers to earn points at all three, he said.
Fertitta told the Casino Control Commission on Monday that he would retain most, but not all, of the Trump Marina staff. He gave no details on how many jobs would be trimmed.
The billionaire dealmaker, who has become known in the restaurant industry for turning around underperforming properties, has a challenge ahead of him.
Figures released earlier this month by the state Division of Gaming Enforcement showed that Trump Marina grossed $10.9 million in revenue in April, down 7.9 percent from a year ago. Slots revenue was down 9.6 percent, while revenue from table games was down 1.5 percent. Year-to-date, gaming revenue was down 13.9 percent, to $40 million, from $46.4 million in 2010's January-to-April period.
After the commission's vote, Fertitta took a walking tour of his new casino. He said a second hotel tower with at least 500 rooms was possible in the near future.
In addition to refreshing all 740 rooms at the current hotel, he plans to introduce new restaurants, brands owned by Landry's, such as Chart House (debuting Thursday), as well as lounges, a spa and salon, and a pool.
"We're just coming in and redoing every surface," he said, "and it'll look like a brand-new property when we're finished."