With Trump Plaza’s Gone, What’s Next in AC?

With Trump Plaza on the Atlantic City Boardwalk imploded, what will rise from the rubble? Among the proposals: a family attraction and a mixed-use development. No one seems to be thinking casino.

At 9:08 a.m. on February 17, the former Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City was imploded, ending seven years of neglect in just seconds. It took 3,000 sticks of dynamite to level the 34-story structure.

That was the easy part.

The hard part will be figuring out what should takes the place of the former gaming hall, which was located in an enviable spot at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway.

The ball is in Carl Icahn’s court. The billionaire investor bought the property from the Trump Organization, long after the former president was best known as a casino magnate.

“I don’t see Icahn sitting on such a valuable piece of land, as he did while the building was closed and in decay,” said Bob Ambrose, casino consultant, adjunct professor of casino management and former casino executive. “It’s a prime piece of real estate and a showcase for Atlantic City to those driving in from the expressway. Can we pull the rabbit out of the hat and guess the future?”

A lot of people are trying to do just that. Given the site’s resort designation, the possibilities are many, Ambrose said: non-gaming, multi-use development, and—a long shot in a town with nine casinos—another gaming enterprise.

In the early 2000s, when Atlantic City was enjoying significant growth, a new casino hotel might have seemed reasonable, even inevitable. After Borgata opened to rave reviews in 2003, companies were tripping over each other to create the next big thing. But those days are long gone. In recent year, some industry analysts even questioned the wisdom of letting the Hard Rock and Ocean casinos join the neighborhood (both opened in June 2018).

“I don’t believe the market will support another casino,” said Michael Busler, professor of finance and finance program coordinator at Stockton University of New Jersey. “In fact, I’m worried whether all the nine existing casinos can make it in the long run.”

Instead, he said, the city needs “something spectacular that can draw the ‘ohs and ahhs’ of guests. The problem is trying to figure out exactly what that should be.”

In the short term, a manicured park might look good when the rubble is cleared away—something to beautify a dead area. Or maybe not. The same approach was taken after another Boardwalk casino, the Sands, was imploded in 2007. Originally, Pinnacle Entertainment planned to build its own another casino at the site, but the Great Recession put an end to that. So in 2012, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority paid $3 million for an art installation called Wonder—little more than mounds of grass covered with signs saying, “Look,” “Imagine,” “Glorious” and “Possible.” In 2016, the city turned the site into something more useful: a parking lot.

“A great deal of promises were made about the future of the 18-acre Sands site,” Ambrose told GGB News. “I don’t want to sound negative, but hopefully ‘promises made and promises broken’ will not be repeated. Atlantic City’s had enough punches thrown at it.”

One idea that may make sense is a mixed-use development, said Nicholas F. Talvacchia, partner at the Cooper Levenson law firm and a veteran land-use lawyer.

“Connect the Boardwalk to the Walk outlet stores, with retail, entertainment, restaurant and residential uses,” he said. Such a plan would reinforce the link between the Boardwalk and the popular Tanger Outlet stores, spanning three blocks in the city’s downtown. The problem with that idea, however, is the looming Trump Plaza parking garage which was not imploded and there are no demolition plans for it.

If money were no object, “non-gaming entertainment uses would attract new visitors to the city and help attract new business to the Walk and to the Boardwalk to support and complement existing businesses,” Talvacchia said.

One funding mechanism could be the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s new Aspire program, which a developer could use as gap financing. It’s a key part of the New Jersey Economic Recovery Act signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy on January 7.

Another intriguing possibility is the expansion of the Caesars Atlantic City footprint in some form, Ambrose said; Caesars is also located on the Boardwalk, along with five other gaming resorts; Borgata, Harrah’s and the Golden Nugget are set apart, in the Marina District.

“Based on my photographic studies of the area, it would be a nice addition,” said Ambrose, “and from an ideological viewpoint, it sounds good. But feasibility-wise, in dollars, is another story.”

The land could also become part of an expanded Boardwalk Hall, Ambrose said. A larger arena could attract more concerts and add another dimension to the convention trade in the resort.

“We’d still be looking at the need for more hotel rooms in the city,” he said, but if the expansions succeed, it could attract more hotel rooms. “We’d also be looking at expanded retail and culinary,” Ambrose said.

Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. leans towards a family entertainment attraction, but in the end, the decision rests with Icahn and his people.

“We look forward to working with them to make a development happen there,” Small told GGB News. “Let this implosion soak in and we’ll soon start discussions with Icahn’s people.”

Icahn’s office did not return a message for comment.

What Atlantic City really needs, Busler said, is something buzzworthy that will renew interest in the shore town: “some attraction that’s difficult to duplicate, and is so appealing that vacationers say that they simply must go to Atlantic City to see it.”

Ambrose agreed. “This is an opportune time to collaborate with stakeholders from all disciplines, both private and government, to unlock a piece of land that is a virtual pathway to future views of the Atlantic City market.”

For now, all that remains of the blasted Trump Plaza is an eight-story pile of rubble.