Hard Rock, Ocean Resort open in Atlantic City
ATLANTIC CITY - The revival of Atlantic City’s gambling industry has begun a crucial chapter with the much-anticipated openings of two new casinos.
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and the Ocean Resort Casino opened their doors Wednesday evening, hours ahead of their official grand openings. The surprise move came after state regulators gave them the green light to begin gambling.
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, which invested $500 million in completely making over its home at the former Trump Taj Mahal, kicked things off with a ceremonial guitar smashing Thursday afternoon that included Black Panther actor Michael B. Jordan and Max Weinberg, drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
Less than a mile up the Atlantic City Boardwalk, Ocean Resort Casino held its ribbon-cutting ceremony to welcome patrons to its 6.4-million-square-foot location, which briefly operated as the Revel before closing in 2014.
Together, the two casinos expect to create around 6,800 jobs. And they bring a double dose of hope to a once-mighty resort that's been slow to rebound financially from the closure of five casinos in the last four years.
“This is great for Atlantic City,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of Stockton University’s Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism. “These are two very strong branded properties with strong loyalty across the globe. There is a lot of optimism that these two properties will drive a lot of visitation to the area.”
And both promise a one-of-a-kind experience to visitors.
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Hard Rock, owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, has venues in 74 countries. Atlantic City is the company’s 11th casino and is accompanied by a 2,000-room hotel.
More than 50,000 people applied for jobs and 3,800 were hired, said Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International, at Thursday's grand opening.
The establishment was buzzing with guests by late morning even before festivities officially kicked off with the ceremonial group guitar smashing on the stage of the 7,000-seat Etess Arena.
Purple and gold balloons and a steady stream of confetti fell from the sky of the venue to cap the celebration.
"We believe this project will create a new renaissance in the future and the expansion and the excitement of Atlantic City going back to being one of the great entertainment cities of the United States," Allen said.
Entertainment is a trademark of Hard Rock, and the Atlantic City location recently announced its “365 Live” campaign boasting free music performances every day during the casino’s first year.
Hard Rock also has assembled a star-studded cast of performers for shows at Etess for much of 2018, highlighted by Carrie Underwood and Pitbull on opening weekend.
The gambling operation at Hard Rock Atlantic City features 2,100 slot machines and 120 table games.
Wally and Tootsie Stuchko of Mount Laurel are regulars at Hard Rock properties.
They've been to locations in Philadelphia, New York, California, Washington, D.C., Boston, Las Vegas, the Caribbeans and more.
On Thursday, they made the day trip to the Atlantic City location while celebrating Tootsie's 66th birthday.
"I'd say this one is right up there, or better, than any of them," Wally said in comparing Atlantic City to other Hard Rocks. "The place looks great. The food, White House Subs is awesome, the gambling, of course ... We're up, not much, $50, but we'll take it. It will pay for the drinks."
The Stuchkos planned to visit a couple Hard Rock shops before moving on to Ocean Resort.
Allen, who said Thursday he had not yet visited Ocean Resort, wished the establishment well.
"People say, 'Jim, are you upset that they're opening,?' I think it's the greatest thing," Allen said. "We love that there's 1,400 rooms right next door of world-class quality."
Hard Rock is home to more than 20 restaurants and lounges, the Howie Mandel Comedy Club, and the Rock Spa and Salon.
In keeping to its musical roots, it will offer Atlantic City hotel guests its signature "Sound of Your Stay" program. The special feature lets guests download curated playlists for their room, rent one of 20 Fender guitars to be delivered to the room, and take advantage of a 10-album vinyl collection handpicked by Hard Rock.
Stephanie Jones made the trip back to her old stomping grounds from Philadelphia on Thursday to check out the new casinos.
Jones whipped her phone out and immediately started taking photos and video of Hard Rock. Like the Stuchkos, Jones, 59, has been to several Hard Rock locations.
"The giant guitar in front of the casino was an eye-opener right off the bat," Jones said. "The inside is bright and I like the colors. It's inviting."
Jones hit her regular spot, Harrah's Resort, before making the trek to Hard Rock. She planned to walk the casino some before trying her luck at the blackjack table and slots.
The atmosphere, she said, was exciting.
"You've got the music and the big TVs everywhere. It has a fun vibe," Jones said. "Maybe it will bring some younger people to Atlantic City. I think that's what they need here."
Ocean Resort Casino
Ocean Resort's opening comes after a six-month renovation of the former Revel, a casino that cost $2.4 billion to build and closed less than 2½ years after its debut in April 2012.
Now owned by Denver-based developer Bruce Deifik, the operation plans to employ 3,000 people.
Ocean Resort celebrated a ribbon-cutting Thursday afternoon with the help of actor Mark Wahlberg, who will have a Wahlburgers restaurant at the resort.
“This ribbon-cutting is a truly spectacular moment for our company, our team members, and the community, as it represents the months of planning and work it took to make the vision we had for Ocean Resort Casino a reality,” Deifik said. “It has been an incredible privilege for my family and I to be a part of this journey and the collaborative efforts that breathed new life into this property, not to mention the opportunity to work with some of the best-in-class people, partners and brands across many industries. We are truly excited about welcoming our guests with open arms and the future of Atlantic City.”
Standing 710 feet, the 47-story hotel and beachfront resort features a 138,000-square-foot casino with 1,399 guest rooms complete with floor-to-ceiling windows that offer views of the Atlantic.
Ocean Resort announced in April a franchise agreement with hotel giant Hyatt. Deifik said he expects the move to open Ocean Resort to Hyatt's global customer base.
Take a tour of Atlantic City's new Ocean Resort Casino, set to officially open June 28, 2018. Produced by Joe Lamberti/Courier Post
As Ocean Resort jockeys with Hard Rock for position in the early going, there is one area where Deifik's property will hold an edge — sports betting.
The casino offered the service to patrons on opening day even as work continues to finish its sports betting area in the middle of the casino floor.
Allen said an announcement for plans on sports betting at Hard Rock should come within two months.
The Borgata is currently the only other Atlantic City casino to offer sports betting, which became possible after Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law this month following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way.
Rich Risley, originally of Westchester County, New York, and now Brigantine, was with his wife, Pat, and daughter, Jessica, at Ocean Resort's sports book.
Risley, 64, placed a $20 parlay bet for his wife that required the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox to win their respective games Thursday night.
"It's the best thing to ever happen to the casinos as far as I'm concerned," Risley said of sports betting. "At least you have a shot of winning something."
Ocean Resort's casino floor has 1,945 slot machines and 99 table games.
Sisters Verna Palumbo, Sandy Siegle and Gloria Reilly of Union Beach, Monmouth County, had a room at Borgata but took time out to tour Ocean Resort with plans to hit Hard Rock after.
All three had been to Revel before it closed and thought Ocean Resort on first glance was an improvement.
"It's very nice, it seems like it goes on forever, but it's set up nice," Reilly, 70, said. "Of course it just opened Wednesday, so it's our first time and we're just kinda looking around."
Reilly noted the number of staff available to assist with any requests, which was a point of emphasis for Ocean Resort.
Guests can dine at 16 restaurants, including American Cut and Dolce Mare.
Darlene Whilden, 58, of Vineland, a regular to Atlantic City on weekends, enjoyed her first look at Ocean Resort during the soft opening. She and a friend stayed in a room, dined and did some gambling.
"The place is huge, it's beautiful," Whilden said. "The food was delicious, the room had a great view, the beds were comfortable, so it was nice. We didn't win any money, but you never win."
Next step in turnaround?
Hard Rock and Ocean Resort are betting, in part, on continued growth from gambling revenue that increased in 2017 for a second straight year in Atlantic City.
New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement figures for 2017 showed $2.66 billion in gaming wins for casinos, a 2.2 percent increase from 2016.
Internet gaming, introduced in New Jersey in 2013, accounted for $245 million of Atlantic City’s gaming revenue, marking a 25 percent climb from 2016.
Both Hard Rock and Ocean Resort have applied for online gaming licenses, according to Kerry Langan of the Division of Gaming Enforcement.
The recent gains for Atlantic City don't stop with gambling, as gross operating profits totaled $723 million in 2017 — a 22.5 percent increase from the prior year. The state defines gross operating profits as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization, charges from affiliates, and other miscellaneous items.
Those welcome revenue trends for Atlantic City casinos come after a decade of overall losses dating back to 2006 — the same year the first casino opened in neighboring Pennsylvania.
In 2014, four Atlantic City casinos — Atlantic Club, Showboat, Revel and Trump Plaza — shuttered. Trump Taj Mahal followed in 2016, bringing the job loss total to 11,000 and leaving seven operating casinos in the city.
The financial situation became so dire in 2016 that New Jersey’s Local Finance Board approved a five-year state takeover of Atlantic City's government. That move robbed Atlantic City's elected officials of many responsibilities and saw the state play a major role in shaping the city's budget and other measures, like decreased pay for public safety workers, designed to stave off potential bankruptcy.
A key question now is how the injection of Hard Rock and Ocean Resort in Atlantic City will impact the other casinos that have rebounded since competition shrunk.
Sara Slane of the American Gaming Association, a trade group whose members include commercial and tribal casino operators, suppliers and other gaming industry entities, said it’s up to respective states to determine if casino expansion is in their best interest.
“Obviously whenever a company decides to invest billions of dollars back into the local economy, that’s always a good thing,” Slane said. “Atlantic City has weathered a massive storm over the last couple of years and seems to have rightsized the market.”
That could help explain why Hard Rock and Ocean Resort are pursuing these ventures.
“Casino property operators look at the market,” Slane said. “New Jersey certainly has not been immune to a lot of competition in the Northeast region, and they dealt with it.”
Pandit’s team performs several studies each year on Atlantic City’s casino industry.
He doesn’t see Hard Rock and Ocean Resort as long-term threats to Atlantic City’s other casinos.
“Initially, there’s always the surge to see anything new, whether it’s Atlantic City or anything else; people are going to gravitate toward that,” Pandit said. “So you’ll see some of that at the start, at the inception.
“So if you’ve been going to the Borgata for many years, you might go check out the new properties, but eventually you go back to where you’re used to certain types of service and amenities. It comes down to service and experience, and that’s how these casinos will differentiate themselves.”
Pandit said another factor that should benefit the casino industry is millennials surpassing baby boomers as Atlantic City's predominant clientele.
That push, he said, won't make Atlantic City as gambling-reliant for revenue.
"From the studies we've looked at, the millennial generation is not as gaming-centric," Pandit said. "They are experience-based. They want to go to clubs, bars, restaurants, see a show.
"You look at last year, and the visitation numbers were good. People were staying longer and there was an influx of people doing things other than just gaming. It had a combined positive effect on the other industries here."
Pandit noted the perception of Atlantic City is changing, and that bodes well for the viability of casinos.
Stockton University is opening a $178 million Atlantic City campus later this year with academic buildings, housing for 533 students, and administrative and faculty offices. It expects 1,100 students to be enrolled there in the fall.
"That's parents, relatives and friends visiting and spending money in Atlantic City in addition to the students there," Pandit said.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, who was on hand for the Hard Rock opening ceremonies, said the new casinos mean "more jobs, more economic activity and the expansion of the state’s gaming sector."
“Atlantic City has been a leader in the gaming industry and we are seeing more positive signs of growth and opportunities for the casinos and the region,” Sweeney said. “Sports betting will certainly help to fuel continued economic growth. We don’t want to see these opportunities lost or undermined.”
More casino news:
- Sports betting in NJ: Business up at track, casino
- A look back: Atlantic City's Trump Taj Mahal casino
- Things to know about 2 Atlantic City casino reopenings
- Topgolf Swing Suite coming to Atlantic City this summer
Anthony V. Coppola: @AVCoppola; 856-563-5258; email@example.com