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Atlantic City holds its breath as Hard Rock, Ocean debut in shells of failed Trump Taj Mahal and Revel casinos

Hard Rock replaces the Trump Taj Mahal, its elephants and minarets replaced with giant guitars and a car belonging to Elvis. Ocean Resort Casino replaces the former Revel, a $2.5 billion casino that failed after two years.

Dancers perform on stage during the celebration of the opening of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Thursday, June 28, 2018.
Dancers perform on stage during the celebration of the opening of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Thursday, June 28, 2018.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

ATLANTIC CITY — And then there were nine.

After an era marked by five casino closings — Atlantic Club, Showboat, Revel, Trump Plaza, and Trump Taj Mahal — and near municipal bankruptcy, a tentative new day dawned Thursday on the Boardwalk with the opening of Hard Rock and Ocean Resort, bringing the temperamental casino town's inventory back up to nine.

For Atlantic City, a town many had written off, the party had somehow arrived once again at its doorsteps, filling the Boardwalk and two dormant buildings with both people and expectations.

One grand debut was loud: a signature smashing of the guitars to open Hard Rock Atlantic City in the old Taj Mahal, all traces of now-President Donald J. Trump and his minarets, chandeliers, and marble elephants replaced by the guitars and rock memorabilia of the Hard Rock brand.

The other that followed was quieter but no less momentous: the christening of the Ocean Resort Casino, with a ribbon-cutting out on a packed and sunny Boardwalk, Sinatra playing in the background, actor Mark Wahlberg and nautically themed ambassadors officially breathing new life into the epic $2.5 billion failure that was once Revel Resort.

People watched from high above, dotting the resort's many decks overlooking the ocean, a sight not seen in years.

Both casinos, which together hired about 7,000 people, quietly opened their doors late Wednesday after receiving final approvals. There were glitches: Ocean's escalator stopped briefly as people streamed in. Hard Rock had a problem with hot water in its rooms.

But by midday Thursday and on into the night, both casinos were teeming with people.

"Jobs, synergy entertainment — Atlantic City needs this," a jubilant Mayor Frank Gilliam said, then added some caution: "Atlantic City's almost back — almost."

An industry and a city will now hold their collective breath.

Whether the two openings will expand the Atlantic City market, bring in a different demographic, or simply cannibalize the existing market that had settled relatively comfortably among seven properties remains an open question.

>> READ MORE: New dining options at Atlantic City's casinos include Garces and Hard Rock

On Wall Street, some analysts were cautious about the consequences of the city's doubling down on an economy dominated by casino gambling.

"It's a risky little business," said analyst Orlie Prince of Moody's Investor Services. "Maybe they'll succeed. Maybe they will replace [existing casinos]. It doesn't provide long-term stability. It doesn't change the fundamentals of the economy."

In an investors' note titled "Atlantic City twins due to be born on June 28," analyst Chad Baynon of Macquarie Research predicted that the two new casinos will take one-third of their combined projected $500 million in annual gross gaming revenue from market growth, but fully two-thirds from existing market share.  He noted that the two new properties will increase Atlantic City's property base by 29 percent, room supply by 30 percent, and gaming space by 41 percent and that Caesars, which owns three casinos, is girding for a $65 million hit.

Hard Rock, with its mighty branding, Seminole ownership, and network of gaming customers, was expected to capture a customer base right out of the gate. A trio of local businessmen, Hard Rock top executive Jim Allen and builders Jack Morris and Joe Jingoli, spent $500 million to remake the once-mighty but financially challenged Taj Mahal, which closed in 2016 under the ownership of billionaire Carl Icahn after a protracted labor dispute.

Ocean, owned by Denver developer Bruce Deifik, a low-key family man who risked the first $10 million without ever visiting Atlantic City, bought the casino from eccentric Florida developer Glenn Straub for $200 million. Ocean is offering sports betting in partnership with the William Hill company, only the second casino in Atlantic City to do so.

(Hard Rock, which has its name on the Miami stadium where the Dolphins play, does not currently offer sports betting.)

At a morning news conference, Morris said the three men from New Jersey — whom he dubbed the "Jersey Boys" —  were eager to transform the former Trump Taj Mahal when others were cautious.

"No disrespect to our friends on Wall Street. They didn't want to touch this place," Morris said.

The casino received more than 50,000 job applications, Allen said, and has hired 3,900 employees. After a near-total gutting of the building, Allen declared Hard Rock unrecognizable from the former Taj Mahal.

"We would've never in a million years left anything in this building associated with any particular brand," Allen said.

Glamour and glitz continued with Hard Rock's loud guitar-smashing ceremony. Thousands packed Hard Rock's Etess Arena, where dancers dressed up as famous entertainers, including Lady Gaga and Billie Joe Armstrong, and performed as fireworks went off on the main stage. More than 800 members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida sat in the audience listening as one of its leaders blessed the casino. Neon robots walked around blasting fog machines. Allen and others smashed rows of black-and-red guitars.

Amid the raucous celebration, Allen took a more serious note. "This is a business opportunity, not just a party," he said.

The new Ocean is partnering with the Hyatt Unbound collection and is relying on a $35 million redesign, less ambitious than many believed a Revel reboot required, plus a change in the culture of the formerly aloof Revel. The 47-story building, still pristine, and its successful nightclubs, the now-christened HQ2 and Ivan Kane's Royal Jelly Burlesque Nightclub, will return to life. Ocean had a busy lineup of top-tier DJs scheduled for opening weekend.

>> READ MORE: 'It's surreal.' Ivan Kane revs up his Royal Jelly Burlesque Club as Revel comes back as Ocean Resort

Gamblers gave the new casinos high marks, though some noted that Ocean felt a lot like, well, Revel. ("I'm completely lost," said Christie Stanishefski of Wilkes Barre, echoing a common complaint of the old Revel.)

"It's more beautiful, more accommodating," Eldra Greaves of West Philadelphia said of Ocean. She was checked in for the evening on a comp she received in the mail. She was optimistic about Atlantic City.

"Most people like Atlantic City," she said.

Sipping champagne at a slot machine, Eileen Sexton, 50, of Staten Island, was hopeful Hard Rock would bring new energy to Atlantic City. She and her husband, Johnny Russo, have visited Atlantic City annually for the last 25 years, and witnessed the Taj Mahal's decline.

But Sexton says more options for "non-gamblers" like her will ensure that Hard Rock doesn't meet the same fate. On Friday night, Sexton has tickets to see country singer Carrie Underwood perform in the casino's live arena.

"Taj Mahal was rundown at the end. We loved it until it went downhill," Sexton said. "Hard Rock is going to bring new life here."

Competition will be fierce. Both casinos were welcomed to town Thursday morning with a front-page newspaper ad from the city's dominant casino, Borgata – an ad that also trumpeted $1,500 bonus slot dollars every 15 minutes for Borgata customers.

Event FX, an event and production company based in Sharon Hill, Delaware County, brought 3,000 roses, 1,000 calla lilies, 1,000 gerbera daisies, 500 hydrangeas, and hundreds of orchid sprays to the Hard Rock festivities. The company is working eight opening events in three days for both VIPs and Seminoles.

"Anything Trump-ish is long far gone," said FX owner Kris Sumey.

Driving into Atlantic City these last years, she said, she watched the changes in the skyline with sadness. "To see all the lights just dim darker and darker, " she said, "this is super-personal for me to see this brought back to life."