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As Taj, and Trump name, fade from A.C., no more extra pillows for guests

ATLANTIC CITY - Inside the Trump Taj Mahal last week, "Ivana's" china was selling at half off. The gold-rimmed plates at the Trump Exchange at the top of the escalator were marked down from $25 apiece to $12.50.

In this April 5, 1990, file photo, Donald Trump ascends the stairs with his fist raised from the genie's lamp after opening the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in a spectacular show of fireworks and laser lights in Atlantic City, N.J.
In this April 5, 1990, file photo, Donald Trump ascends the stairs with his fist raised from the genie's lamp after opening the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in a spectacular show of fireworks and laser lights in Atlantic City, N.J.Read moreAP Photo/Chaarles Rex Arbogast, File

ATLANTIC CITY - Inside the Trump Taj Mahal last week, "Ivana's" china was selling at half off.

The gold-rimmed plates at the Trump Exchange at the top of the escalator were marked down from $25 apiece to $12.50.

A Donald Trump quote - "I like thinking big. You have to think anyway so why not think big?" - still hung on a wall, above an oversize black-and-white portrait of Trump from back in the day.

Those remnants of a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Atlantic City was "Trump City" could disappear from the public eye if the Taj's new owner, billionaire investor Carl Icahn, closes the four-times-bankrupt casino after Labor Day, as announced last week.

"This was not an easy decision," Icahn said in a letter to Taj Mahal employees on his website. "Icahn Enterprises has lost almost $100 million trying to save the Taj," he wrote.

Icahn, whose company took over the casino because it controlled the secured debt in the latest bankruptcy of Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., said a more than monthlong strike by members of Unite Here Local 54 was "the latest and final nail."

Union president Bob McDevitt called the closure a petty move. "To hang it on the strike is ridiculous," McDevitt said. The workers went on strike July 1 over pension and health benefits.

A combination of nonunion and union workers who cross the picket line have kept the casino operating, with nonunion workers doing 18-hour shifts, McDevitt said. Some strikers shout at guests, but they don't block entrances.

Employees received a legal notice Friday that the closing date is Oct. 10.

Shutting down the Taj, which had 1,805 full-time employees on June 30, would leave Atlantic City with seven casinos, down from 12 in 2014. About 8,000 workers lost their jobs in the 2014 closures, as the operators succumbed to competition from other states.

The Atlantic City gambling market has shown signs of bottoming out, even as a second casino is in the works for Philadelphia, and New Jersey voters will decide in November whether to allow two casinos in North Jersey.

When the Taj Mahal opened in April 1990, Atlantic City was still ascendant, and Trump ruled.

"People forget that at that time, in the late '80s early '90s, this was Trump City," said Joe Weinert, of Spectrum Gaming, a consulting firm in Linwood, N.J.

Trump already had two casinos, Trump Plaza and Trump's Castle, and it was the era of the Trump Card TV game show, the Trump Princess yacht docking at the Frank S. Farley State Marina, the Trump Castle world offshore powerboat championships, and the Tour de Trump bicycle race.

"The Taj Mahal was the crown jewel of the Trump empire in Atlantic City," Weinert said.

It was Atlantic City's first mega-resort, with a 120,000-square-foot gambling floor, 1,250 hotel rooms, and 12 restaurants when it opened, and its nine white elephants and 70 minarets and onion domes in metallic shades of pink, blue, and green along the Boardwalk set a new standard for ostentatiousness in a place known for gaudy gambling halls.

Its opening punctuated the history of casinos in Atlantic City in a way that was matched only by Borgata in 2003 and the now-shuttered Revel in 2012.

The Taj, which Trump advertised as a "billion-dollar dream," was the city's top casino by revenue for a dozen years, peaking in 2000, and was for many the place to go until Borgata opened in 2003.

Employees fondly recalled those glory days.

"We had parties, we had raises, we had employee of the month, trays of big, giant shrimp, they took care of us. Oh my goodness, it was beautiful," said Barbara Dobbs, who has continued cleaning the casino floor during the strike, as she has done since opening day. "Say what you want about Donald Trump, he was the best boss," said Dobbs, 53.

Trump was also a businessman who, like many other casino magnates, saddled his properties with massive debt loads.

In the case of the Taj Mahal, Trump borrowed $675 million in the junk-bond market at 14 percent interest to complete the casino after taking it over from Resorts International.

That debt and other problems landed the Taj Mahal in bankruptcy 15 months after it opened, but not before bankers put the squeeze on his personal finances, limiting him to a $450,000 monthly allowance.

Trump skated through bankruptcy by surrendering half of the ownership in the Taj to lenders in exchange for a lower interest rate, but 253 contractors who were owed $70 million in the bankruptcy didn't fare so well.

The episode has become a political rallying cry for Hillary Clinton. At an Atlantic City campaign event last month, Clinton was introduced by Marty Rosenberg, of Atlantic Plate Glass, who described losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump. Even the manufacturer of the fiberglass white elephants that line the property's exterior has said he got paid almost nothing.

After the 1991 bankruptcy, things went well for years at the Taj Mahal, even though it was an unwieldy property, difficult to manage, said Roger Gros, publisher of Global Gaming Business magazine in Henderson, Nev.

Trump's casino company, which went public in 1995 under the name Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, was back in bankruptcy in 2004 with $1.8 billion in debt, under pressure from the opening of Borgata in 2003.

Bondholders forgave $500 million in debt and reduced the interest rate to 8.5 percent from 12 percent in exchange for 20 percent ownership of the company, cutting Trump's stake to 27 percent.

The third bankruptcy, for the renamed Trump Entertainment Resorts, came in 2009 amid the nation's severe economic downturn.

This time, Trump lost control of his company to a group of hedge funds led by Avenue Capital Group, which bought the company out of bankruptcy in 2010 for $225 million.

In exchange for allowing the new owners to continue using his name on the properties, Trump received 5 percent of the company's stock and warrants for another 5 percent.

Striking employees traced the casino's decline to the takeover by Avenue, which lost control to Icahn in the 2014 bankruptcy.

Amenities were cut and supplies cheapened, said Manuel Zamora, 48, who has worked at the Taj in housekeeping for 26 years, most recently as a $14.42 an hour room service runner, delivering extra pillows, blankets and other items to loyal customers.

By the end, he said, there were no extra pillows: "They complained, 'What's going on?' We can only give you one pillow. 'Why? How come? I have been a loyal customer.' "

Zamora said Thursday that he doubts the casino will close.

"It's a ploy to scare us," he told two patrons walking into the Taj Mahal from Pacific Avenue, where Zamora stood with other red-shirted strikers and where the letters T-R-U in a sign were dim (as were the M-A in Mahal).

State Sen. Jim Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor, said he would be surprised if the closure talk were a negotiating ploy. "I'd love to be wrong."

Despite the troubles, the Taj was still drawing its loyal customers last week. A couple from Youngstown, Ohio, said they did not like what they found.

The bathroom was dirty, carpets were stained, service strained, said Angie Dykes, who drove east with her husband, David, for a family reunion.

"It's nasty," said Angie. "There's no paper towels in the restrooms, you have to use Kleenex to dry your hands. The rooms are filthy, the mattresses are old. The luxury is definitely not the way it was 10 years ago," she said.

But her husband said the family would still return to Atlantic City.

"As long as the wood is on the Boardwalk, and the water out there, my family's going to keep on coming," David Dykes said, as an ocean breeze passed through.