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The cautious optimism of Atlantic City

Two new casinos invigorate the boardwalk this summer

Atlantic City hasn’t had much reason to celebrate in recent years.

In 2014, four of the city’s 12 casinos closed. A fifth, the Trump Taj Mahal (owned by President Donald Trump until filing for bankruptcy in 2014) shuttered in 2016.

Some Atlantic City mainstays managed to skirt the bleakness: James Beard-winning restaurant Chef Vola’s still required reservations months in advance, the line to White House Sub Shop regularly snaked down the sidewalk in brutal humidity and frigid winter breezes alike.

Still, the past few years, besieged by competition from casinos in Philadelphia, New York and Maryland and suffering from an airport that offers minimal service only from the inconsistent Spirit Airlines (seasonal nonstops are available from Atlanta), Atlantic City floundered.

But the shore city 60 miles east of Philadelphia isn’t ready to fold just yet.

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During a summer-long soiree to fête its 15th birthday, the Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa, the most consistently successful casino in Atlantic City, hosted a rotating cast of celebrity chefs including Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay, performances by Britney Spears and Cher, and enticing gaming promotions.

The one-time gaming mecca of the East Coast has yet to solve its airport limitations, and New Jersey Transit recently announced it will close the Atlantic City Rail Line, which provides transportation from Philadelphia, through early 2019 to install federally mandated safety equipment.

It might still seem grim, but there are several reasons to look at the city synonymous with the Miss America pageant and the charmingly ramshackle boardwalk with cautious optimism.

The Borgata, which towers a few miles from the ocean in the Marina District, remains the front runner, taking in more than $76 million in gaming revenue in July, according to the Division of Gaming Enforcement – about $39 million more than second-place Tropicana.

It was also the first casino in Atlantic City to offer sports betting when a longtime federal ban was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in June.

However, the 15th birthday of the comfortably chic gambling palace coincided with new competition — the opening (or, rather, transformation) of a pair of boardwalk casinos.

In late June, the former Trump Taj Mahal completed its conversion from domed gaudiness to the sleek, hip Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, becoming the 12th casino property in the portfolio of the Florida Seminoles.

A few blocks away, past the also-reopened Showboat (currently only as a hotel, though owner Bart Blatstein is reportedly looking into a gaming license) sits the ultimate resurrection in Atlantic City, Ocean Resort Casino, a $2.4 billion gleaming beauty that replaced the ill-fated Revel Casino Hotel, which shuttered in 2014 after a mere two years.

Both properties are luring regular gamblers with offers for comped rooms, lucrative free play and matching the status of players’ cards from other casinos through Sept. 30.

But if either new venue is concerned about a rivalry, they aren’t showing their hands.

“I think the old saying, a rising tide lifts more boats is true. To see this property come back, not only in the way that it has, but to think of its future…” said Michael Preston, executive director of public relations for Ocean Resort, his voice trailing off as he looked around the bustling, airy lobby appointed with a giant fish tank, a bar and an inordinate amount of seating by glass windows overlooking the ocean.

Through its dormant years, the property passed through potential buyers with whiplash speed until being purchased in January by AC Ocean Walk for $200 million. The 20-acre resort is also part of Hyatt Hotels’ Unbound Collection.

The innards of the building were preserved remarkably well, with the casino still sporting massive wicker-style ceiling fans and carpet imported from Ireland, and guest rooms — all with ocean views — offering lavish bedding and high-end amenities similar to the Revel years.

“Nothing has changed structurally,” said April Hoch, a resort ambassador at the property. “Any of the positive things (from Revel) they kept.”

While the Borgata bounded across the finish line with the opening sports bet on the first day of legality, Ocean Resort boasts the most fully realized, Las Vegas-styled sports book and a marquee partnership with London bookmaker William Hill. The sports book area, decorated with massive TVs and a spacious bar, is already the centerpiece of the casino.

Ocean Resort didn’t stimulate the Revenue Gods with its first-month gaming tally of slightly more than $17 million, the lowest of Atlantic City’s nine casinos. But it earned the highest in sports wagering revenue – more than $1 million in July, according to the Division of Gaming Enforcement.

Other changes since re-opening include a tucked-away haven for Topgolf, where players can play virtual golf and dodge ball in 11 bays; the largest one-level Starbucks on the East Coast (also with a view of the ocean); the addition of smoking areas (many gamblers had bristled at Revel’s non-smoking mandate); the Ocean Buffet opening this winter; and a general vibe of warmth compared to Revel’s inherent snootiness.

Back at the Hard Rock, a different feeling of newness buzzes through the brightly lighted casino floor.

Music, obviously, is the touchstone of anything bearing the name Hard Rock, and to commemorate its inaugural year, the property is in the midst of a“365 Live” initiative, which means live music every day among the five stages situated throughout the casino.

Additionally, the 7,000-capacity Etess Arena and 2,000-adjustable-capacity Soundwaves Theater have landed shows by Janet Jackson, Steely Dan, Christina Aguilera, Bob Dylan and Cassadee Pope and The Fab Faux. (Comparably, Ocean Resort’s 5,000-capacity Ovation Hall has inked only a handful of events, including professional boxing and upcoming shows from Wanda Sykes and Wayne Brady.)

The Hard Rock, which underwent about $500 million in renovations, also boasts the biggest collection of music memorabilia of any Hard Rock worldwide.

Pieces range from an Elvis Presley Rolls-Royce flanked by The Beatles’ outfits from their first performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which greet visitors at the main entrance, to glass cases housing mementos such as a canceled check from Tupac Shakur and a DMV letter from Bruce Springsteen.

The namesake restaurant has two locations inside the casino: the boardwalk side, identified by a stunning mural of musicians including Prince, Billy Joel and Madonna rendered in Sharpie by artist SpearLife, and the main café, which is open 24/7 and includes a video poker bar.

“It doesn’t look like it belongs here in A.C., does it?” public relations manager Tim Louie asked while walking across slick wooden floors and marble pathways that look more Vegas than Atlantic City.

And in a novel turn that not even the Vegas Strip can claim, the casino opened the 24-hour Rocktane gas station and car wash across from its parking garage where a 30-foot guitar beckons visitors.

The Hard Rock hasn’t jumped into sports betting yet (plans are in the works), but the casino tallied an impressive gaming figure from its first full month of operation, bringing in more than $32 million, the third highest in the city.

While it’s too early to tell if the new properties will buoy the city’s gaming industry beyond the high season of summer and after opening promotions expire in September, the signs are encouraging.

The Division of Gaming Enforcement statistics for July show that the nine area casinos employed more than 30,000 people for the first time since 2014 and a simple walk down the boardwalk indicated a healthy influx of visitors.

As Ocean Resort’s Hoch noted, “If Atlantic City succeeds, we all succeed.”

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