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Gary Trask

Gary  Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's Editor in Chief and has worked as a writer and editor more than 25 years. The Boston native was a member of the Poker Hall of Fame's inaugural Media Committee.

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Atlantic City casino grand reopenings ignite new sense of optimism

29 Jun 2018

By Gary Trask
ATLANTIC CITY – There were vibrant fireworks, A-list celebrities, free champagne, a balloon drop and "guitar smashing." Ceremonial first bets were placed at a brand-new sportsbook; long lines of politicians, CEOs and tribal leaders shared excessive words of thanks and praise at press conferences and ribbon-cuttings; and dozens of high-end restaurants opened their kitchens and served their maiden meals and poured exotic cocktails.

And it all happened in a span of less than 15 hours on Thursday at two extravagant properties that sit about 600 paces apart on one of the most iconic pieces of shoreline in the U.S.

Yesterday was much more than a day that saw Ocean Resort Casino, former home of the shuttered Revel Casino Hotel, and Hard Rock Hotel & Casino - Atlantic City, previously Trump Taj Mahal, celebrate grand openings. It was also — and perhaps more importantly — the official start of Atlantic City's much-needed "rebirth."

"As you look out and see the beautiful backdrop of the Atlantic Ocean and the infamous boardwalk, Atlantic City is truly back in the game," Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam said outside on the steps of Ocean Resort Casino, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on a sun-splashed afternoon. "This a monumental moment. This was truly a collaboration of folks finally realizing that Atlantic City is not only an important part of New Jersey history, but world history."

Less than 30 minutes before making this bold statement, Gilliam was at Hard Rock, where he called Atlantic City a "sure bet."

"There’s a new energy in this town that we can basically thank Hard Rock Atlantic City for,” he said. “Things like this don’t just happen by chance. It happens with people who have vision, who have guts, and took a chance and bet on Atlantic City. Let me tell you, Atlantic City is a sure bet.”

That, of course, remains to be seen. Between 2013 and 2016, five of the city's 12 casinos closed, for a variety of reasons ranging from market saturation to poor management. But following Thursday's two openings, the number of casinos on the AC roster is back to nine, and all is good in the world . . . for now.

While both properties announced "surprise" openings Wednesday night, the official ceremonies didn't begin until Thursday morning. And the difference in the ways the two properties presented their grand openings was striking.

The Hard Rock's ceremonies were not only much longer, but also gaudier and more flamboyant. Following a press conference that began at 9 a.m. and ran well over an hour, the next stop was the newly dedicated and refreshed Etess Arena for the guitar smashing, an event that was scheduled to start at 11 a.m. but didn’t begin until almost 30 minutes later.

As no less than a dozen different executives and tribal members came to the podium to say a few words and thank the Hard Rock and Seminole Tribe of Florida, media members and others planning to attend the 1 p.m. ribbon-cutting at Ocean Resort Casino were looking at their watches and wondering if they would make it.

Chairman of Hard Rock International and Chief Executive Officer of Seminole Gaming Jim Allen called the opening a "bridge to the rebirth" of Atlantic City and reminded the crowd, which included 800 tribal members, what he said a little over a year ago when the project was announced under certain scrutiny.

"I promised that we wouldn't just put a coat of paint on the building and put a big guitar on the wall," said Allen. "So, here we are, $500 million later. Look around — I think we fulfilled that promise."

Allen also mentioned that the property was sold out of guest rooms for opening night after an "overwhelming" response, and that over 50,000 people applied for jobs at the resort and they hired 3,900 of the "very best."

The actual smashing, which didn’t happen until 12:35 p.m., was presided over by Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg and entailed 25 dignitaries, executives, Seminole Tribe members, CEOs and celebrities — including Black Panther star Michael B. Jordan — slamming Hard Rock guitars to the ground on the count of 10, prompting a balloon drop, confetti, blaring music and loud cheers from the crowd of a couple thousand people who had sat through the ceremony to see it finally happen.

The Hard Rock agenda then graciously stepped aside for the Ocean Resort Casino festivities (at least until the 10 p.m. firework show), but it certainly didn't leave much wiggle room. By the time most folks trying to attend both ceremonies fought their way through the sea of people and purple and yellow balloons, worked their way across the crowded casino floor to the boardwalk, and made the 10-minute walk to Ocean Resort Casino, a large crowd had already gathered on the front steps of the property, where Gilliam (who must have used some sort of secret tunnel to get there in time), New Jersey Senator Chris Brown, Director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement Dave Rebuck, and superstar actor Mark Wahlberg were on hand for the "official opening" of the 1,399-room resort that is the tallest building in the city.

"I'm not sure the Boardwalk has ever been this busy on this side of town, but that's about to change," said Bruce Deifik, owner and chairman of Ocean Resort Casino.

Senator Brown drew the loudest cheer when he thanked Deifik for having the "marketing wisdom" to include the Walhberg family, which will open a Wahlburgers restaurant this summer.

"We're all now official members of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch," he said to a rousing ovation, referring to Mark Wahlberg's former hip-hop group.

After the blue ribbon was cut, Wahlberg needed five security guards to help him walk down the boardwalk, dodge the swooning females in attendance and dart into a side entrance, where he immediately went to the new, 7,500-square-foot William Hill Sports Book and placed the first wagers: $200 on over 5.5 wins for the Cleveland Browns and $100 on the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl at 6-to-1 odds.

"It was a very cool moment and the crowd loved it," William Hill US CEO Joe Asher said. "This whole week has been amazing. I used to vacation in Atlantic City as a kid, so to be part of a team that opened one of the first sportsbooks in the city and to help add to all of the excitement here has been extra special for me."

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the massive resort, which takes some time. There's a 138,000-square-foot casino floor with more than 100 table games and nearly 2,000 slots. There are 15 restaurants and bars, including the "world's largest" Topgolf Swing Suite, which weighs in at 26,000 square feet, and continues the blossoming company's expansion into the casino market.

That's not all. The resort also features six pools, 160,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, 90,000 square feet of outdoor space for receptions and celebrations, a 40,000-square-foot Exhale spa with 31 treatment rooms, a 3,000-square-foot bath house, and a mind-body studio and retail boutique.

Ocean Resort Casino brought even more star power to the table when actor and comedian Jamie Foxx hosted a night of entertainment in the 4,200-seat Ovation Hall event venue.

About an hour after the show closed, it was back to the boardwalk to see the Hard Rock's firework show explode over the ocean before the DAER Nightclub officially opened its doors to a huge crowd.

"I'm very excited for Atlantic City because I see it transforming in front of my eyes," Deifik said earlier in the day.

The hope is that that transformation continues for more than one weekend or a couple years. The hope is that Atlantic City returns to prominence as an entertainment destination. And for at least one very long and eventful day, that hope was fulfilled.

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