ATLANTIC CITY The Atlantic Club Casino Hotel closed early Monday, a victim of the casino saturation taking place in the Northeast.
About 1,600 people lost their jobs at 12:01 a.m. as the 33-year-old casino shut its doors. Tearful employees embraced one another and exchanged goodbyes.
Cocktail server Ursula Moralski, who had worked at the casino since the day it opened, said its struggles were evident.
"We've seen it coming, but we're still shocked it's actually happening," she said. "It's sad. I've been here half my life."
Battling for years against newer, bigger casinos in Atlantic City and in neighboring states, the Atlantic Club had sought a buyer for years but was unable to attract one. It filed for bankruptcy in November and was sold for a combined $23.4 million just before Christmas to two competitors who will strip it for parts.
Tropicana Entertainment bought the table games, slot machines, and customer lists, while Caesars Entertainment bought the 801-room hotel, for which it has no immediate plans.
"I never thought it would end this way," veteran cocktail server Catherine Irizarry said last month on the day the bankruptcy sale was finalized. "I came here from Caesars when it was the Golden Nugget because it was the hot place to work. I never thought it would go down."
The Atlantic Club opened in December 1980 as the Golden Nugget, owned by casino magnate Steve Wynn. It soon became Atlantic City's top-earning casino, and its TV commercials featured Wynn bringing fresh towels to Frank Sinatra, who often performed there.
But over the years, as the Atlantic City casino market expanded, the casino changed hands several times and went through a handful of names: The Grand, Bally's Grand, the Atlantic City Hilton, ACH, and finally the Atlantic Club.
As newer casinos opened with 2,000 rooms and hot nightclubs, pools, and spas, the Atlantic Club was no longer so special. It lost market share to its local competitors, and its decline was hastened when the first Pennsylvania casino opened in 2006.
The Atlantic Club was more dependent than the others on convenience gamblers looking to play for a few hours, then drive or ride the bus home. It struggled further as many of its best customers forsook it for gambling halls closer to their houses.
Its owner, Colony Capital L.L.C., a Los Angeles hedge fund, paid more than a half-billion dollars for it in 2005.
It searched in vain for a purchaser for the last three years before inking a deal in December 2012 to sell itself to the PokerStars website for $15 million.
But that deal fell apart within months because of concerns over whether the website's management could qualify for a casino license in New Jersey amid an unresolved indictment against the company's founder.
Steve Norton, a former Atlantic City casino executive and current casino consultant, said the Atlantic Club's closing will benefit the market by removing unneeded capacity and the excessive discounting that he said was helping keep it afloat.
He said Atlantic City should brace for additional casino closures, particularly if gambling is allowed to expand to the Meadowlands in the next several years.
"This is very unfortunate for the several thousand employees, whose families rely on their casino jobs, but those with gaming training may find a new opportunity if Meadowlands gaming is approved in the future," he said. "The Atlantic Club's casino may be the first, but probably not the last."
Annette Flack said she and all her coworkers asked to work one last day together Sunday.
"I don't care if we make $2," she said last month. "We want to go out together."
Added food server Lisa Schaper: "Everyone said they wanted to come to work."
As of Monday morning, Atlantic City was down to 11 casinos.