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South Jersey university on verge of purchasing one of A.C.’s last empty casinos

Stockton University, which is opening up an Atlantic City branch, will vote this week on purchasing the nearby former Atlantic Club casino. The deal would involve tearing down the tower, but not the parking garage.

Exterior of the defunct Atlantic Club hotel and casino. Stockton University, which is opening an Atlantic City campus, will vote this week  on purchasing the property.
Exterior of the defunct Atlantic Club hotel and casino. Stockton University, which is opening an Atlantic City campus, will vote this week on purchasing the property.Read moreMichael Bryant

ATLANTIC CITY — Stockton University, which will open a branch campus and ocean-front dormitory this fall in Atlantic City, is on the verge of purchasing the former Atlantic Club property, one of the last vacant casino buildings on the Boardwalk.

Atlantic Club, formerly the Hilton and originally Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget, shut down in January 2014, ushering in a rocky era in which four more casinos — Showboat, Revel, Trump Plaza, and the Trump Taj Mahal — also shut down.

The purchase, which the university's board of trustees will consider at its Wednesday meeting, would require the owners, TJM Properties, to demolish the main tower building, which has badly deteriorated in the last four years, according to the resolution on Stockton's agenda.

That would leave just the Trump Plaza building in the center of the Boardwalk vacant, a welcome sign that the city was moving on from the difficult period of being a seaside casino town defined by five empty casinos on the Boardwalk.

Trump Plaza, which shut down in September 2014, is generally thought of as a tear-down at this point. The property is now owned by billionaire Carl Icahn, who is seeking public money to help finance its demolition.

Showboat was purchased by Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein and is operating as a non-casino hotel, its former gaming floor partitioned off by temporary curtains. It has hosted an eclectic combination of gatherings this summer, including a vegan food festival and boxing. Its food options, including Worship Surf Bar, were recently taken over by well-known local restaurateurs Bill McGinnity, who owns Cousin's Restaurant in Ocean City, and Lou Freedman, who owns Bocca in Margate.

Trump Taj Mahal re-opened earlier this summer as the Hard Rock, and the Revel opened as Ocean Resort Casino.

The Atlantic Club property is just a few blocks from Stockton's new Atlantic City campus, which will open later this month and house nearly 500 students. Four-person suites all have ocean views, and there will be a food court. A separate academic building will offer 100 classes. South Jersey Gas is relocating its corporate headquarters to a new midrise next door.

Stockton spokesperson Diane D'Amico said the university sees its growth potential happening in Atlantic City, as its existing campus in Galloway, about 10 miles from Atlantic City, is maxed out due to Pinelands restrictions. Shuttle buses will run from 7 a.m. to midnight between the two campuses, she said.

"Right now we are at about 98 percent capacity for housing in Atlantic City," she said. "As we grow, the Galloway campus is maxed out because of Pinelands restrictions. All our growth will have to be somewhere else, likely Atlantic City."

Last week, Stockton sold the Seaview Resort, which had housed about 250 students and served as a base for its hospitality classes. The $21 million from that sale is enabling this purchase, D'Amico said. She did not disclose the proposed purchase price for the Atlantic Club.

The Atlantic Club property has gone through several owners since its demise as a casino hotel, and several failed attempts at reopening as an indoor water park. More recently, pieces of its porte cochere were observed falling to the ground. It consists of 11 lots off the Boardwalk totaling about nine acres, plus an 11-acre beach lot.

Stockton president Harvey Kesselman has said that what the public university really wants is the nine-level parking garage, which also includes 50,000 square feet of office space. The land where the tower is now could be used to build additional housing in the future, D'Amico said.

"We need the housing," D'Amico said. "We guarantee housing for four years. The housing issue will continue to grow. The academic building can hold 1,800 students at any given time. If we are going to grow, that location is close to our campus, close to the University District. Opportunities would be more limited in the future."

The resolution says the purchase "will be a strategic capital investment to support the future growth of the Atlantic City campus, to provide additional opportunities to attract and recruit New Jersey students, and to stem the outmigration of New Jersey students who enroll in college and leave New Jersey."

The campus will include an event space named for Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist who attended the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City and gave a speech that included the famous words "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired."