ATLANTIC CITY - Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein paid a visit to this city Wednesday with his usual swagger as a doer vs. a talker.
With more than 30 years as a developer, he boasted, he's done a lot on the other side of the river transforming neighborhoods, such as Northern Liberties, with hip restaurants and new housing behind his company, Tower Investments Inc.
Now Blatstein has his sights on a down-on-its-luck, moribund high-end mall - the Pier Shops at Caesars - in perhaps the best location in the city: on the 50-yard line of the Boardwalk, behind Caesars Atlantic City, perched atop the ocean.
"I had to be part of this resurgence," Blatstein told the audience that received him enthusiastically at a noon news conference in the back end of the first level of the Pier Shops. "With my architect [Paul Steelman], this can't fail."
Blatstein's vision is a $50 million makeover - all his money, he said - to redo the underperforming mall into a trendy dining, shopping, and entertainment destination called the Playground at One Atlantic Ocean.
His Playground will include T (for Tower) Street on the first level, featuring six themed music clubs for live entertainment. Blatstein said he wants T Street to resemble Music Row in Nashville and Beale Street in Memphis.
Where water fountains now sit in the rear of the first floor will become 39N, a state-of-the-art concert hall; Monkey Bar will be a high-tech bar with ocean views on two sides to sit and relax before venturing to T Street.
And there will be a Bart Bowl, a large bowling alley that will also feature live music, food, and drinks, on the second level.
The third level will feature a massive sports viewing venue, called Varsity Club Sports Bar.
Blatstein said there will also be a large beachfront concert venue on the north side of the pier for year-round use and a private, over-21 beach club.
Blatstein, who now owns the building and Caesars Entertainment the land it sits on (a legal dispute between the two parties over the lease transfer was just recently settled), has an aggressive schedule. He wants the first floor fully converted by Fourth of July weekend, and the second and third floors by Christmas.
"The master plan in Atlantic City starts at the ocean," said architect Steelman, who shared the raised stage with Blatstein, longtime U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., N.J.), State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), and Mayor Don Guardian. "We want this to be the entertainment capital of the East Coast."
It's a tall order for a mall that started out with high expectations but has seen more downs than ups in the last eight years, just like its host city.
Built on a 900-foot pier over the Atlantic Ocean as a luxury dining, shopping, and entertainment complex with more than 70 stores, the $200 million Pier Shops at Caesars (modeled after the Forum Shops inside Caesars in Las Vegas) opened in summer 2006 at the height of the gaming and real estate boom in Atlantic City.
When it debuted, the Pier Shops was heralded as a new dawn of luxury retailing for a resort town where shopping opportunities were more mom-and-pop T-shirt store than glittering jewelry emporium.
Jutting out over the ocean, ablaze in LED lights and shaped like a cruise ship, the Pier offered high-style designer brands - Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Tiffany and Co., to name a few. Even better, it was connected to a high-end casino.
Almost from the start it was beset with financial problems as new casino competition began to eat into the city's bread-and-butter industry, starting in 2007.
The national economy took a turn for the worse the following year, and competition from Tanger Outlets at the Walk, a value-oriented, outdoor outlet mall blocks from the Boardwalk, took the wind out of the Pier Shops' sails.
"The Walk did impact it," said Lisa Muratore, co-owner of the White Lotus on the second level of the Pier that sells trendy women's clothing, jewelry, and bridal pieces. "You had some of the same stores at both, like Coach and BCBGMaxazria.
"There were also a lot of negative stories about the Pier, about how empty it was and people didn't know if it was even open," Muratore said.
Taubman Centers Inc., of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which owned the mall, defaulted in April 2010 on a $135 million mortgage. Lenders, including U.S. Bank N.A., bought the complex for $25 million plus $1 at a foreclosure auction in late 2011.
Muratore said it had since gone through a series of management companies before Blatstein took ownership last year.
"It was poorly designed," said Blatstein, as he walked around the Pier after the news event. "It was closed off to the outside world, and that's why we're adding windows and making it more accessible to the public."
Blatstein took ownership of the Pier in November, the same month he lost out on the second and final Philadelphia casino license.
He said he wants the mall to maintain its high-end look and feel and is talking with tenants about who will stay and who will go. More than half of the original storefronts are vacant. After Blatstein's event, the Pier was nearly empty.
"It's tremendous news," said Dee Harjani, 50, of Atlantic City, who owns Sports Collection on the first floor. "I like the fact he's not a guy that just talks. He's all about action."
Antanina Yeudakimenka, 31, owner of Karina Boutique, also on the first level, envisions one thing under Blatstein's transformation of the mall. "We have beautiful stores," she said. "We need people."