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Racing away to Margaritaville

It sure is a funny world. Take the performances Jimmy Buffett did at a legendary Bryn Mawr coffeehouse in 1974 and '75.

A crowd gathers outside the new Margaritaville at Resorts in Atlantic City, N.J., on May 23, 2013.  (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
A crowd gathers outside the new Margaritaville at Resorts in Atlantic City, N.J., on May 23, 2013. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)Read more

IT SURE IS a funny world. Take the performances singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett did at the legendary Bryn Mawr coffeehouse, The Main Point, in 1974 and '75.

It's hard to fathom that anyone at one of those gigs would have looked at the solitary guitar-strummer with the shoulder-length hair and walrus mustache and thought, "Almost 40 years from now, that guy will be a crucial player in the revitalization of Atlantic City's gaming industry."

First, it would be another couple years until Atlantic City even earned the legal right to host casinos. Second, who could have been so prescient as to imagine that in 2013 this hippie-ish fellow would preside over one of the Western Hemisphere's most successful hospitality-industry empires?

But if the world were logical and rational, there would be no Snooki and no Kim Kardashian, either. And as the summer season commences in Atlantic City, Buffett stands as a potentially pivotal figure.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was on hand Thursday for ribbon-cutting ceremonies at the singer's $35 million Margaritaville complex at Resorts Casino Hotel, which tomorrow marks its 35th anniversary as the nation's first legal betting parlor east of Nevada.

Margaritaville - which the governor lauded as part of an ongoing "reset" of Atlantic City - is more than just an outpost of the popular restaurant-bar chain based on the Buffett beach-bum ethos.

The Parrot Head megaplex also includes a LandShark Bar & Grill on the beach, a 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar, the first-ever Margaritaville coffee shop, two retail outlets (Margaritaville and LandShark) and a Margaritaville-themed slot games parlor.

AC's lost shaker of salt?

With Atlantic City's gaming and tourism industries continuing to feel the double-whammy of new gambling options in neighboring states and the after-effects of the 2008 economic meltdown, Margaritaville is seen as a key to the town's future. As Christie put it when he and Buffett announced the project on the boardwalk last summer, the enterprise is crucial for "what it says about the trajectory and momentum behind the revitalization of Atlantic City."

It's easy to understand the upside for the city and the state. They're getting a series of proven attractions - in 2011, the Margaritaville Café inside Flamingo Hotel Casino on the Las Vegas Strip alone grossed $43 million - situated beachside in the only Buffett-blessed location between Connecticut and Myrtle Beach, S.C.

For its part, Margaritaville gets to plant its flag within driving distance of what is, according to sources in and outside the corporation, the largest concentration of Parrot Heads (Buffett fans) in the nation. Around here, "Jimmy has a ton of fans," said Tamara Baldanza, director of new business for Margaritaville Enterprises LLC.

"We've been looking at Atlantic City for a long time and wanted to come up to the Boardwalk specifically," said Baldanza, who speaks for the notoriously media-shy Buffett. One plus for them was all the space that the Resorts' property - now managed by the gaming operation of the Connecticut-based Mohegan Indian tribe - had to offer, allowing the Buffett juggernaut to "put virtually all our brands in one footprint.

"LandShark, Margaritaville, our first coffee shop, 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar . . . if you couple that with being on the beach, it just made absolute perfect sense," she said.

Resorts CEO Mark Giannantonio is, predictably, over the moon. The veteran gaming hall exec - who started in the business as a room-service waiter at the casino - called the Margaritaville project, coupled with new management by Mohegan Sun, "a great game-changer."

Previously, in Boardwalk renewal

Of course, Atlantic City has heard that tune wafting over the sand and surf from Resorts for the past 20 years. While it enjoyed unprecedented (for the time) profits in the years immediately following its 1978 opening, by the mid-'80s the gaming hall was upstaged by increasingly modern and deluxe properties.

The late entertainer and show business mogul Merv Griffin's stewardship in the 1990s failed to produce sustained success, as did such subsequent, high-profile operators as Sol Kerzner of Atlantis (Bahamas) fame and the late Dennis Gomes, who re-themed the casino with a "Boardwalk Empire"-inspired 1920s motif.

Before he died of dialysis complications last year, Gomes and his partner Morris Bailey (still Resorts' owner) seemed to be making inroads toward his dream of transforming Resorts to something on the scale of the Margaritaville enterprise, so there's a bittersweet irony that it has come to pass without him. There is general agreement among industry insiders that the Margaritaville-Mohegan Sun tandem will likely catapult the long-underperforming Resorts into the top tier of local gambling dens.

That said, it would probably be overplaying the hand to see Margaritaville - or any single attraction - as the game-changer for Atlantic City itself. "I don't think it's realistic to expect] that kind of 'silver bullet,' " said Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism in the School of Business at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Still, he said, Buffett's international beach-bum brand could well entice new audiences to consider Atlantic City for the first time or reconsider it after a lapse. "I think it's an opening."

First impressions

So what's in store for longtime Parrot Heads and the newly curious? It's a good bet the LandShark Bar & Grill will be especially popular. The first permanent bar-restaurant constructed on the Atlantic City beach, the year-'round LandShark boasts a surf-bar motif and a covered deck with panoramic ocean views.

A vaulted ceiling gives the room a spacious feel. A retail shop, offering a dizzying array of logoed gear, sits inside the main entrance off the Boardwalk. The menu emphasizes casual dining, with such items as sandwiches, peel-and-eat shrimp and chargrilled oysters available.

Incidentally, for all of Buffett's odes to the sand, this LandShark outlet is the first of his company's branded businesses to actually sit on a U.S. beach. Several others are situated directly across the street from strands in places like Panama City Beach, Fla., but only Atlantic City's outpost is a literal beach bar.

Across the boardwalk from LandShark is a brand-new Margaritaville façade that's the gateway to Buffett World proper. First stop: the Margaritaville Café (and souvenir store), a lively, tropical-island-themed space. A circular bandstand (for the bands that will be performing daily) and a Tiki Bar are part of the mix.

In addition to all manner of beer and "frozen concoctions," Margaritaville offers a fairly large menu of theme-appropriate items (coconut shrimp, jerk salmon) and traditional bar munchies like nachos, chicken wings and burgers - including the trademarked "Cheeseburger in Paradise."

Across from the restaurant is the Margaritaville casino, with several dozen slot and video-game machines. Inside the main casino is the 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar, a standard gaming-hall pitstop. The new Margaritaville coffee shop is around the corner, along a first-floor corridor.

Among those scoping out the new digs Thursday was Scott Newcomer of Brigantine, who identified himself as a representative of the Jersey Shore chapter of the Parrot Head Club, chartered by Parrot Heads in Paradise, an international coalition of some 200 Buffett fan clubs. "This is huge for us," he said.

Tony Baker of Sanford, N.C., whose bona fides as a Parrot Head were evident in the stuffed, hot-pink flamingo perched on his head, was there, too. He said he visits Resorts about six times a year. "We have a Margaritaville on the Boardwalk," Baker said with a grin. "It doesn't get any better than that."

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