11/16/2012

Margaritaville Atlantic City on track to open in 2013

Work begins on Resorts’ Margaritaville-style makeover in Atlantic City

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI and JENNIFER BOGDAN Staff Writers

Resorts Casino Hotel’s retheming last year into a Roaring ’20s pleasure palace did not produce the financial results that would make management do the Charleston or Lindy Hop in celebration.

So it is hardly surprising that the Jazz Age music and retro-chic decor of Atlantic City’s oldest casino are about to take a back seat to a more contemporary theme, one featuring a beach-party vibe.

Some of the first signs of that transition were visible Wednesday as workers began laying the foundation to rebuild Steeplechase Pier, and with it construct the Margaritaville LandShark Bar & Grill, the centerpiece of the casino’s new island theme. A $35.5 million project complete with dining and retail, the LandShark complex will stretch 200 feet over the beach, replacing the amusement pier that burned in 1988.

Just two weeks after Hurricane Sandy swept through the region causing severe destruction, crews began work by moving in wood planks and using blow torches to remove a beach billboard where Resorts first publically unveiled its plans to open Margaritaville by spring 2013. The start of construction was delayed slightly due to the storm, but that shouldn’t affect the project’s anticipated Memorial Day opening, Resorts spokeswoman Courtney Birmingham said.

Mary Simon, 62, of Cherry Hill, Camden County, stopped for a better look at Wednesday’s activity and to take a photograph.

“I wanted a picture. It could be neat to say someday that I saw it being built,” Simon said.

The arrival of singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville entertainment brand coincides with a new management deal that puts the Connecticut-based Mohegan Sun in charge of the day-to-day operations at Resorts.

The president of Mohegan Gaming Advisors, Mohegan Sun’s management subsidiary, predicts that the Margaritaville makeover will return solid profits to a casino that has mostly piled up losses in recent years under different owners.

“There is a realistic expectation in 2013 that we will be profitable, post-Margaritaville,” said Gary Van Hettinga, who also serves as Resorts’ new chief executive officer.

Van Hettinga, 54, a 30-year veteran of the casino industry, will oversee the Margaritaville project until it is completed next spring, but he noted that Resorts intends to name a permanent CEO by January as part of the new management plan.

Mohegan Sun also has become a 10 percent owner of Resorts. It has an option to increase its stake to 25 percent. New York real estate magnate Morris Bailey, who bought Resorts in December 2010 for $31.5 million, remains the principal owner.

Margaritaville will reorient Resorts toward the beach. Outdoor seating and an oceanfront deck will immerse Margaritaville’s bar and restaurant customers in a faux tropical setting.

Resorts’ deteriorated Boardwalk facade, a throwback to the casino’s 1978 grand opening, is being replaced by the Margaritaville theme. Van Hettinga said the entire Boardwalk entryway will be transformed at a cost of $4 million to $5 million. Resorts is eligible for about $2.3 million in funding assistance from the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for the facade facelift, he added.

The project means that the iconic celebrity plaques bearing the handprints and autographs of stars who have performed at Resorts over the years — Cher, Wayne Newton, Tom Jones and Barry Manilow among them — will be removed from the facade. Plans are to relocate the plaques to what will be a refurbished entryway connecting the parking garage and casino floor.

As they step inside Resorts from the Boardwalk, customers will enter other parts of Margaritaville, including a new 5 O’Clock Somewhere bar. This section of Resorts will also have a Margaritaville-themed casino area.

Inside the casino, construction preparation has been going on for weeks. The sound of drills and hammers could be heard just inside the casino’s Boardwalk entrance as work went on where Breadsticks Bar & Grill had been located. That space will be turned into a Margaritaville Cafe, where current 12-foot ceilings will be knocked out to allow for another 20 feet of space needed to hang Margaritaville’s distinctive airplane from the ceiling.

Resorts’ entire casino floor is getting new tropical-colored carpeting. Other improvements include two new VIP clubs and a food court that will feature three or four outlets. Resorts also plans to add new shops to its retail corridor linking the hotel lobby to the Boardwalk.

The Margaritaville makeover means that Resorts’ Roaring ’20s theme will no longer dominate the casino. The Roaring ’20s brand was started last year by Resorts’ former CEO Dennis Gomes, who died in February of complications from kidney dialysis.

Gomes hoped the theme would capitalize on the nationwide popularity of the hit HBO show “Boardwalk Empire,” which is inspired by Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Resorts, however, continued to lose millions, except for a tiny, $199,000 gross operating profit in the second quarter this year.

Van Hettinga described the Roaring ’20s theme as more of a public relations twist that cultivated a new marketing image for Resorts. A new cross-marketing program allows customers at Resorts and the two Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut and Pennsylvania to use their rewards points for hotel stays, dining and entertainment at all three properties.

Resorts test-marketed the program by offering free slot play and other perks to 1,000 customers from the two Mohegan Sun casinos, Van Hettinga said. Mohegan Sun and Resorts hope to develop a continuous flow of customers among the three properties.

One of the Mohegan Sun customers who decided to give Resorts a try was Mary Beth Stewart, of Eastchester, N.Y. Stewart was lured by an offer of two free hotel nights and $110 in free slot play.

“I haven’t been here for six or seven years,” Stewart said of her last visit to Atlantic City. “Usually, I gamble at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. This is the type of thing that could make me want to come back here.”

Read the article online at PressOfAtlanticCity.com here.