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Five showplace resort-casinos are planned for Atlantic City Atlantis to feature bigger marine display than Baltimore aquarium

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - At least five new resort-casinos are planned here - monstrous, Las Vegas-style themed palaces that will be far more elaborate than anything Atlantic City has ever seen.

They'll feature Broadway-type productions, with dazzling special effects, that will cost as much as $40 million to stage.

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They'll have attractions like thrill rides and giant aquariums and glitzy Hollywood premieres.

They'll be filled with unusual cafes and restaurants, and hip specialty stores that'll make the mall seem dull.

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With so much going on, gambling will seem almost secondary.

And that's just the point.

Transforming Atlantic City?

What the new casinos hope to do is transform Atlantic City from a gambler's day trip into a full-scale "destination resort," a place where even non-betting tourists will stay for days at a time.

It's worked in Las Vegas - a crop of new resort-casinos along the Strip has drawn hordes of tourists who come mostly for the shows, the shopping, the restaurants and the amusements.

And now, the same formula is coming to Atlantic City.

Three sprawling resort-casinos are planned for the Marina section next to Harrah's: Steve Wynn's new casino, to be called Jardin, and two imports from Las Vegas - the Stardust and Circus Circus.

Two others are expected on the Boardwalk - MGM Grand and Planet Hollywood. Still another entry into the tourist market will emerge from Resorts, Atlantic City's first gambling hall. It's got a new owner, who plans to remake it into a resort-casino called Atlantis, with marine displays nearly twice the size of the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

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Everywhere you turn these days, Atlantic City is getting ready for the tourists. Many of the current casinos are expanding, and more hotel rooms are being built. A new convention center is about to open, and the airport has been expanded.

It could all come together by the end of 1999, when the new resort-casinos hope to be open.

None of the casinos have been built yet - in fact, most are in the early planning stages - and success for Atlantic City's second wave is far from guaranteed.

Neighborhood residents, complaining they're being squeezed out, are battling several of the new casinos.

Atlantic City must prove it can attract tourists even during harsh East Coast winters. And there is another, less tangible obstacle that must be overcome - the city's image as a flawed fantasyland where limousines glide past desperate poverty.

The new casinos coming here don't seem to be worried. They say they're confident that Atlantic City can follow Las Vegas' lead, and get rich in the tourist trade.

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Unless you're a hard-core gambler, there's not much to do in Atlantic City these days.

The 13 casinos offer table games and slots, though little else. Casino shops and restaurants are mostly for people who just want a quick break from the casino floor, and the showroom entertainment doesn't offer much beyond what people can get in their hometowns.

That's the way it's been since the casinos came here in 1978. And things wouldn't be changing now - and perhaps not for many more years - if it weren't for a combination of circumstances.

It began with the recession of the early 1990s, when states

across the country - desperate for new jobs and taxes - started legalizing riverboat casinos.

Atlantic City began to fear for its life. There was suddenly competition everywhere. Even Philadelphia, Atlantic City's biggest customer, was considering riverboat gambling.

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Everyone here knew that unless Atlantic City could become bigger and better than the competition, one day it would wake up to find itself just another casino town.

Panic-stricken, the casinos screamed that they couldn't grow - not as long as they were handcuffed by repressive state regulation.

That was the same complaint the casinos had always made. But for the first time, New Jersey started listening. And for good reason - its own interests were now at stake.

Atlantic City's casinos contribute $300 million a year to state programs for the elderly and disabled. If Atlantic City gets hurt, so will New Jersey.

And so, in a scenario almost unthinkable just a few years before, the usually adversarial Casino Control Commission actually started asking the casinos which regulations they didn't like.

"We want it to be a profitable business," explains Bradford Smith, the former state senator who heads the commission. "What the legislators didn't want to see is any of these programs funded by the general treasury."

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For the first time, the casinos got decision-making power over such things as how much experience a dealer needed to be hired, and how a casino could be designed.

Smith insists the state didn't give up its primary mandate - "to keep out the bad guys and to keep track of revenues." But, he adds, "We are out of making business decisions for the casinos."

State's strategy worked

Almost immediately, Atlantic City's casinos started raking in more money - from 1991 to 1996, the amount they won from gamblers jumped from $3 billion a year to $4 billion a year.

The smell of all those billions wafted across the country to Las Vegas. Big casino operators there - ones who had stayed out of Atlantic City because of all the state regulation - suddenly wanted a piece of the East Coast action.

And then Atlantic City got another lucky break: With the end of the recession, most states were no longer in a hurry to legalize casino gambling. Casino companies, hungry to expand out of Las Vegas, now had only one place to go.

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Steve Wynn was first in.

He had made his mark in Atlantic City before, when he turned the Golden Nugget into a successful high-roller casino, and began a long-running rivalry with Donald Trump.

But he had quit the city in the mid-1980s, angry and frustrated at New Jersey's tight control over the casinos. He vowed not to return until the state relaxed its regulations.

Last spring, Wynn decided it was time to come back.

He announced that he would build Atlantic City's first real resort-casino, the kind he had pioneered in Las Vegas with his Mirage.

Like all the new casino operators coming to Atlantic City, Wynn credits the friendlier regulatory climate.

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"The state of New Jersey finally realized how overregulated, how overstaffed their agencies were," Wynn said in a recent interview. "It was an idea whose time had come."

Wynn had another incentive: The Atlantic City Council gave him - without charge - 150 acres in the Marina section, the city's old dump.

A strange twist

It was a strange twist, even for Atlantic City. In the 1980s, former Mayor Michael Matthews was indicted for trying to sell some of the same land in a deal with the mob.

City officials were criticized for giving the land outright to Wynn. But they pointed out that when they tried to auction it off a few years before, no one was interested.

Now, Wynn is interested. And, as current Mayor James Whelan puts it, "he's bringing his friends."

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Wynn is planning a three-casino project in the Marina. He's made deals with two other Las Vegas casino companies to join him. One is Boyd Gaming Corp., which owns the Stardust in Las Vegas; the other is Circus Circus Enterprises.

Both companies say they'll build theme resort-casinos here, though they're not sure yet what the themes will be. In Las Vegas, Circus Circus' casinos include the Luxor - which has an Egyptian theme and is shaped like a pyramid - and Excalibur, which has a knights-in-armor theme.

Circus Circus might have come to Atlantic City before, but the state so tightly regulated how casinos could be built that the company simply wasn't interested. "We were not able to build the kind of mega-casino that we've been making our fortune with," company President Glenn Schaeffer said in an interview. He noted that those regulations have now been eased, and added, "I think Atlantic City, besides the Las Vegas strip, is now the prime venue for entertainment casinos in the world."

Wynn has invited Harrah's - already in the Marina - to hook up with the three new casinos. All four would be connected by walkways to form a mega-resort.

"It's the clustering effect," explains Ellis Landau, Boyd's chief financial officer. Resort-casinos tend to work better when they're grouped together, he says, because "they give the image of a giant theme park, which Atlantic City clearly lacks."

There was only one problem with Wynn's plan: A residential neighborhood separates the Marina from the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway, where the new convention center is going up.

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So Wynn demanded that the state build a tunnel under the neighborhood. And he played hardball: No tunnel, he warned, no new casinos.

After negotiations with the state, he agreed to put up a third of the $330 million cost.

But that hasn't satisfied neighborhood residents, who have gone to court to block the project. They're upset that nine homes over the tunnel would have to be demolished, and that a busy new roadway leading to the tunnel would go past other homes.

Whelan says the city's doing the best it can.

"We're a tourist community - that's our lifeblood," he said in a recent interview. "There's going to be traffic. It's how you deal with it."

Opponents of the tunnel have suffered setbacks in court, and Whelan is confident the project - and the Marina casinos - will be built.

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But he added, "Until the deal is done and the shovel is in the ground, things can happen."

Wynn's Marina project is only part of the story. On the Boardwalk in the city's Inlet section, just north of Trump's Taj Mahal, another major Las Vegas casino operator is making plans. MGM Grand has been steadily buying up land, and wants to spend $700 million to build a huge resort-casino that covers about 40 acres.

'Emotionally engaging'

This company doesn't do things in a small way. Its resort-casino on the Las Vegas strip has more than 5,000 hotel rooms, making it the largest hotel in the world. MGM Grand is now "re-theming" its Las Vegas casino into what it calls "City of Entertainment," and officials say the Atlantic City resort will be built along similar lines.

Both casinos, for example, will likely have a "Studio Walk" - a food and shopping arcade made to resemble a Hollywood sound stage. Now that New Jersey has loosened its grip, Atlantic City's casinos no longer have to look dull, says MGM Grand Chairman Terrence Lanni.

"They all look like Sears, Roebuck distribution centers," Lanni said in a recent interview. "There's nothing that says, 'Come here, I want to entertain you.' "

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Resort-casinos need to be "emotionally engaging," he said, so that people will be drawn in, and encouraged to stay.

To be a destination resort, a place must also offer what tourism experts call a "shopping experience" - so that shopping is not just something to do when you get there, but helps draw you there in the first place.

Pub Date: 3/14/97



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