GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Stockton University has agreed to sell its troubled Showboat property, its interim president said Wednesday, after the school's trustees approved the deal.
The Inquirer this week reported that Bart Blatstein, the Philadelphia-based developer credited with sparking redevelopment in Northern Liberties and elsewhere, was in talks with the university on buying the Showboat.
On Wednesday, Harvey Kesselman, Stockton's interim president, would not reveal the buyer's identity, the selling price, or other details, citing a due-diligence period that is to end Thursday. Stockton will announce the buyer's name and the terms of the deal Friday, he said.
Blatstein would not comment on possible plans to purchase the Showboat, let alone the possibility of walking into a legal thicket.
As things stand now, Caesars Entertainment, which sold Showboat, could object if the property were to be used again as a casino; Trump Entertainment Resorts, owners of Trump Taj Mahal, could invoke a 1988 covenant requiring the property to remain a casino-hotel; and Glenn Straub, owner of the Revel, could pursue what he has called ongoing rights to siphon energy from the adjacent Showboat for his shuttered property.
Asked whether he would seek a casino license if he acquired the Showboat, Blatstein, who was rebuffed in his attempt to gain one in Philadelphia, would not comment.
He also would not say whether he would make a deal with Straub on supplying the Revel with electricity, hot water, and other energy. At one point, Straub had an agreement to buy Showboat, and he pursued litigation related to the deal when it fell through.
Blatstein already has a presence on the Boardwalk. He acquired the former Pier at Caesars and has converted the half-empty mall into a dining and entertainment complex called the Playground that opened in late June. He said the project has been a success, though the largest music venue in it is no longer scheduling concerts.
"We have signed a lot of leases," he said. "The pier's great. I tried a lot of things. Real estate is not measured in weeks or months, it's measured in years."
Blatstein has also proposed to repurpose the Garden Pier across from the Showboat, now the home of the Atlantic City Historical Museum and Art Center.
Blatstein said he had encouraged other developers to invest in rock-bottom Atlantic City.
"Two friends purchased properties in Atlantic City from Philly because of me," he said. "It's already started."
The renaissance of the beleaguered city and its struggling economy was supposed to have been anchored by Stockton's purchase of the Showboat, with plans to convert the property into a residential "Island Campus" for thousands of students.
Instead, months of legal and political wrangling followed the university's $18 million purchase in December, as the parent company of the Trump Taj Mahal casino, also next door to Showboat, moved to block Stockton's use of the property.
A high-profile backup plan - selling the property to Straub for $26 million - fell through and led to further litigation, leaving Stockton on the hook for monthly maintenance and operations costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Wednesday's announcement that a sale is imminent - greeted by vigorous applause from the room at the board of trustees meeting - suggested a resolution was near.
"We can say with some degree of confidence that the bleeding will have stopped," Kesselman said at the meeting, though he cautioned that the deal would not be final until the closing, expected in November: "It's not a done deal until it's a done deal."
The board then voted to approve the sale agreement Kesselman had signed.
"My hands are sweating just thinking about this resolution," said Madeleine C. Deininger, chair of the trustees.
Then, in another turn toward the future, the trustees authorized negotiations of a different sort.
"The board of trustees has decided to empower the executive committee to begin negotiations with Dr. Kesselman to name him as president at our December meeting," Deininger said.
Each trustee voted - "enthusiastically, yes," one said - to keep Kesselman at Stockton, at the top leadership role that he has been in for months. If all goes well, Kesselman, 64, will be named president when the trustees meet Dec. 2.
"Thank you for the vote of confidence, thank you for your support," Kesselman said, after a standing ovation from the crowd and the trustees. "We still have a heck of a lot of work to do."
That work includes concluding the new Showboat deal and handling the fallout from the collapse of the Island Campus plans and the later Straub deal, as he has been doing all summer.
Kesselman said after the meeting that Stockton, which has more than 8,600 students and an operating budget of $228 million, would maintain a presence in Atlantic City and look to expand it in the future.
Kesselman's story narrative at Stockton is well-known: He was one of the school's first students, and has been at Stockton for 35 years.
Kesselman was in the school's first classes, on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1971, graduating in 1979.
First a professor, teaching mathematics and education courses, Kesselman moved into administration, including as dean and professor in the education school, vice president for student affairs, and interim vice president for administration and finance.
In 2010, Kesselman became provost, Stockton's chief academic officer.
A first-generation college graduate, Kesselman received a master's degree from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in 1983 and a doctorate in education from Widener University in 1995.
He has served on the executive committee of the state's financial-aid body, the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, and been involved in state higher-education policymaking.
Kesselman took over the presidency on an interim basis in April, after the former president, Herman J. Saatkamp, announced he would step down and then went on immediate medical leave.
In a report on the Showboat deal commissioned by the trustees and released Tuesday, investigators placed blame mainly on Saatkamp, saying he was overbearing and often kept the trustees in the dark regarding the acquisition.
Saatkamp said blame should lie with the outside legal counsel the school engaged to advise him. The inquiry placed some blame outside lawyers as well.
When Saatkamp left, the Showboat fallout became Kesselman's to deal with.
By then he had been named to become president of the University of Southern Maine, leaving him just weeks at the top of Stockton.
The trustees reached out to the University of Southern Maine - "Simply stated, Dr. Kesselman is the only individual at Stockton who has the authority to conduct the negotiations, and he has the confidence of all entities," Deininger wrote in a letter - and the chancellor there agreed to release Kesselman from his contract.
Kesselman remained at Stockton, as acting president.
This month, Kesselman became interim president. And now, the trustees are planning to drop the qualification altogether.
Negotiations will take several months. Kesselman, who made $239,050 as provost, was bumped up to $320,850 in annual salary when he became acting president.