Renewed interest in the Atlantic City real estate market could finally pay off for MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based casino giant that owns large tracts of land all but forgotten over the years.
MGM’s main asset is its 50 percent ownership in Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. The company threatened to leave Atlantic City three years ago in a highly publicized regulatory tiff with New Jersey casino officials, but it now wants to keep its stake in Borgata.
Not nearly as well known is MGM’s ownership of two parcels of casino-zoned land in the Marina District — property that offers a clean palette for development. Altogether, the property makes MGM the largest casino landowner in Atlantic City.
MGM, however, is not saying whether it will hold onto the property or try to sell it. Company spokesman Gordon Absher did not respond to requests for comment.
One MGM-owned site is a 72-acre expanse between Borgata and Harrah’s Resort. The other features 14 acres next to Golden Nugget, overlooking the waterway that separates Atlantic City and Brigantine.
Although prices remain far below historic highs, Atlantic City’s once-moribund real estate market has been recharged by recent casino sales as well as a major land deal in the heart of the Boardwalk. One veteran real estate appraiser with longtime knowledge of Atlantic City indicated that MGM may capitalize on its land holdings now that the market appears to be perking up.
“These two pieces of land are free and clear. They have been on the market for a long time,” said Anthony Graziano, executive director of Integra Realty Resources of Toms River.
Atlantic City’s real estate market has begun to stir through the pending sales of the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino and a nearly 20-acre oceanfront parcel in the center of the Boardwalk.
The Atlantic Club’s purchase price has not yet been disclosed, but Trump Plaza has a sale agreement for $20 million, an all-time low for an Atlantic City casino sale and one opposed by mortgage holder Carl Icahn.
The Boardwalk site’s $30.6 million price equates to about $1.5 million per acre, which may serve as a benchmark for future property sales in a recovering market, Graziano explained.
Graziano said MGM has been sitting on its land holdings because the market was so soft. He believes their location in the middle of the Marina District casino cluster makes them prime parcels for development.
Graziano has appraised MGM’s two plots of land but would not disclose their estimated values. For tax purposes, Atlantic City has assessed the 72-acre site at nearly $600.3 million and the 14 acres at $72.5 million, according to the Tax Assessor’s Office.
“The 72-acre site is probably one of the best opportunities, if the gaming industry ever does anything with it,” Graziano said. “It’s an excellent location.”
MGM shelved plans in 2008 to transform the 72 acres into a $5 billion casino-hotel complex modeled after its massive CityCenter development in Las Vegas. The company had dubbed the project “MGM Grand Atlantic City.”
The site remains devoid of development, crowded only with knee-high brown weeds. The soaring hotel towers of Borgata and Harrah’s loom over the property. A small, weather-beaten road sign for “MGM Resorts Blvd” is symbolic of the ill-fated plans for the property. Like MGM Resorts, the company’s former name, the MGM Grand Atlantic City project simply faded into history.
Tom Ballance, Borgata’s president and chief operating officer, declined to comment about the MGM-owned land other than to say there have been no discussions between the two companies about developing the 72 acres.
“I have no idea what MGM plans to do with it,” Ballance said.
MGM and Boyd Gaming Corp. are 50-50 owners of Borgata. Boyd Gaming developed Borgata and serves as its operator. MGM supplied the land for Borgata’s construction. In 2010, MGM sold 11 acres of land underneath Borgata and related ground leases for $73 million to an investment group headed by Vornado Realty Trust and Geyser Holdings.
MGM began unloading its Atlantic City holdings in 2010 after New Jersey regulators objected to its partnership in a Macau casino. MGM decided then to leave Atlantic City and sell its ownership in Borgata rather than severing ties to Macau casino partner Pansy Ho, whose father, Stanley Ho, is suspected of having ties to Asian organized crime. MGM and Pansy Ho’s family have denied the allegations.
In a dramatic turnaround, MGM announced in February that it wanted to stay in Atlantic City and keep its ownership in Borgata. New Jersey casino regulators are reviewing the request, as well as MGM’s application for a license. It is not yet clear when they will rule. MGM claims the Macau partnership has been restructured to dramatically reduce Pansy Ho’s ownership.
Because MGM is not commenting, it is not known whether the company would look to revive development plans for the 72 acres at the same time it is seeking regulatory approval to retain its share of Borgata.
MGM’s 14-acre site, though, appears better suited for a sale to Landry’s Inc., Golden Nugget’s parent company, Graziano said.
“The 14 acres clearly are something that the Landry’s guys have to buy,” Graziano said. “They can’t afford to let somebody else do something with it. That site should be owned by the Landry’s people and done the right way.”
Despite its ownership by MGM, the land is more closely associated with the adjacent Golden Nugget, which was formerly known as Trump Marina Hotel Casino. The property long was viewed as a potential site for Trump Marina’s expansion. Now that Landry’s has rebranded Trump Marina as the Golden Nugget, speculation has mounted that Golden Nugget might make a play for the land.
Tom Pohlman, Golden Nugget’s general manager, declined to comment on the MGM property.
Currently, the 14-acre site is rather scruffy looking, covered by marsh reeds, squat pine trees and a thicket of bushes. However, its waterfront location makes it an attractive development parcel.
Las Vegas gambling mogul Steve Wynn once owned the site and considered building a casino there. After MGM took ownership, it discussed building a casino there in partnership with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, the owner of the Foxwoods casino in Connecticut.
In 2004, MGM optioned the land to a condo developer for $22 million. But the deal collapsed, igniting a court fight between MGM and the developer over ownership of the land. The courts ruled in MGM’s favor in 2008.
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