ATLANTIC CITY - It's hard to make out against the crush of casino closings, but some things in Atlantic City are being reborn. Start with the Claridge Hotel, nearly a century old, now with no gambling but recently reopened, somewhat paradoxically as a 1920s-theme luxury boutique hotel. Off the lobby, art dealer David Holtzman has opened what he calls the largest independent art gallery in the world. On a high floor, familiar Atlantic City LGBT marketer Joel Ballesteros is in charge of a new gay club, Club 11, and the Children's Discovery Museum will move there in the fall. The Miss America Organization also plans to move its offices from their odd outpost in Linwood. Enter Turkish-born hotelier Cem Erenler, 44, lured to be general manager by owners TJM Properties. With past gigs at luxury boutique hotels, including the Reeds in Stone Harbor and the Regent in New York City, Erenler says he turned down fancier jobs to take on turning the old skyscraper by the sea into something cool and classy.
Question: First, how do you say your first name?
Erenler: Jem. C-e-m. C is pronounced like G, like gemstone.
Q: No one pronounces that right.
A: It took my wife about two years to pronounce my name right. It is the easiest Turkish name you can find.
Q: So, what's going on here?
A: We are renovating and rebranding the Claridge Hotel, a bridge between past and future.
Q: This building was built in 1929?
Q: Another tough year.
A: Yes, but this place is special. The Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, all stayed here. Other hotels in Atlantic City don't have a lobby like this, with a seating area. We totally renovated 500 rooms. We renovated our two ballrooms. One was the poker room.
Q: Where does the art gallery fit in? That used to be the casino floor.
A: It's cutting-edge. It is the largest independent art gallery that we know of in the Northeastern U.S. It says in the world, but I'm not sure about that.
Q: You have the 1920s theme. You have art. You've got the new LGBT club, Club 11. You're located at the official gay beach of Atlantic City. Are you trying to be all things to all people?
A: The Children's Museum is also coming.
Q: Are all these things compatible under one roof?
A: We are the new Claridge Hotel. It is gearing toward families, a destination resort. It will be a mecca for social events. We are gearing up for 40 weddings in 2016. They want to have the cocktail hours in the art gallery. We have a library room, which will be a tea room.
Q: What was your most recent job?
A: I was opening general manager at the Reeds in Stone Harbor, then I went to the Berkeley Ocean Front Hotel in Asbury Park. Before that, I consulted to different properties in New England, Nantucket. Before that, 16 years in New York City, Four Seasons, the Regent Wall Street, and Ian Schrager boutique hotels, Paramount and Hudson.
Q: Those are pretty classy places.
A: Yes. If this wasn't the opportunity, I would never come to Atlantic City. The owner wanted me, someone out of Atlantic City.
Q: You have to get people to appreciate the history of the Claridge yet see it in a new light.
A: It would be easier if it didn't have the historical past. It would be easier maybe to see it as a modern boutique hotel.
Q: Can Atlantic City be viewed differently too?
A: I would love people to look at Atlantic City and say, "I can spend my vacation here, beach, shopping, hotel life." We have art gallery and children's museum, we have rooftop bars, which we are building. Amenities you expect at any boutique luxury hotel. Any Meatpacking District, New York City hotel, would have a rooftop bar.
But we will be affordable. Also, it will be warmer. We will not be snobs here.
Q: Atlantic City's an interesting place right now. A part of it is in free fall. But people are coming up with different models.
A: Atlantic City is coming back. We are doing very well. Room rates are up.
Q: Are people coming to the art gallery?
A: Yes, absolutely. We are doing quite well. There are buyers.
Q: Are you familiar with the Art Park across the street? It didn't really catch on.
A: It didn't have much art.
Q: But are you also trying for a sophisticated tourist who's not really here?
A: You have to bring in that client.
Q: Given the terrible year Atlantic City just had, that doesn't discourage you?
A: The opposite. Something new has to happen. Enough of gambling, I say. Maybe four or five casinos for the city.
Q: You had offers to go to Abu Dhabi but you chose to go to Atlantic City?
A: Yeah. Can you believe that? We were all packed up for beautiful opportunities in California. We can go to a luxury place, opportunities in Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, Atlanta, California. People I know in New York said they won't even understand you, Atlantic City. Cem, get yourself together.
But there are more challenges here.
Q: What's planned for the future?
A: We just closed a deal with Miss America, they will be moving their offices here. We just closed a deal with Miss New Jersey. We are bringing in an Atlantic City Jazz Festival, the biggest in the Northeastern United States. I am in partnership with the New York City Foundation of Jazz. People will say it will never happen, just like this gallery. People said it'll never happen.
The outside park, we are turning it into a wine and beer garden, Brighton Park. This summer.
Q: So, how long did it take you to decide to do this job? To do Atlantic City. To Do AC?
A: To decide? As they were talking to us, I had interviews at other places, at Atlanta, California. They just wouldn't let me go. I said, "Good luck, I can maybe offer you my consultancy, I am taking a job at a huge five-star, five-diamond hotel." The owners, Terence McCarthy and Frank Dagostino, said, "We're waiting for you."
My wife and I, we talked about it, we are like, "This is terrible, how did this happen that we ended up here?"
We are just amazed.
Perseverance is a good thing.