Atlantic City has been built and rebuilt time and again by individuals who have willed their visions into being.
Country doctor Jonathan Pitney and his industrialist business partner, Samuel Richards, helped turn a virtually unpopulated island into a vacation destination. John Lake Young built “Young’s Million Dollar Pier,” replete with a mansion for its namesake and lighting laid out by Thomas Edison. Paul “Skinny” D’Amato had his 500 Club. Nucky Johnson seemed to run everything. At one point, Donald Trump owned plenty, too — but he never got hold of Vera Coking’s house. Carl Icahn wound up claiming that prize.
Today, the city faces an economic crisis that many say it should have seen coming. Unemployment, a lack of equitable economic development and broad poverty are among the most pressing issues that must be addressed. Eager to reinvent itself once more, the city is clearing a path for a new group of developers, industry leaders and institution heads. Each one discussed their vision of what’s to come with The Press. At the heart of their proposals is the same promise: After they’re done, Atlantic City will never look the same.
STEEL PIER — Anthony Catanoso
Expansion includes giant observation wheel
“We know there’s a market there. We’ve put our life blood into this.”
Steel Pier Associates LLC, the company headed by Anthony Catanoso, 56, bought the Pier in 2011 after leasing it for 20 years. Catanoso says the pier is part of Atlantic City’s undertold story, one in which the city remains a popular destination for tens of millions of visitors each year.
The Steel Pier is part of that success, Catanoso says. So far this year, revenue from rides, food and beverages is up significantly over 2013, driven in part by $23 million in renovations and 14 new rides that have come to the pier in recent years, he said.
Now, Catanoso wants to take the pier to another level.
“We’re very fortunate to be the torchbearers of an iconic brand like this,” he says. “We’ll do everything we can to keep it alive and in the forefront of entertainment in Atlantic City.”
To realize that aim, next year Catanoso will extend the pier by a total of 30,000 square feet. The new space will host the pier’s Slingshot ride, along with an observation wheel currently being assembled in Italy.
Catanoso says the wheel, which will feature climate-controlled, Wi-Fi-enabled gondolas lifting guests 220 feet into the air, should open by next fall and will run year-round. He says conservative projections suggest that 600,000 visitors will use the attraction annually.
Steel Pier Associates also owns the enclosed walkway connecting the pier to Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. Catanoso says the company is negotiating with several potential tenants and that, regardless of the Taj’s fate, an announcement is coming within weeks on a new contract that will fill the space with a family-friendly business. Families remain his target market. Catanoso says he “saw from day one that there was still a family market in Atlantic City,” something Donald Trump, the owner Catanoso previously leased the pier from, didn’t appreciate.
Between a third and two-thirds of the pier’s attractions will eventually be covered, Catanoso says. His ultimate goal is to create “a year-round destination and a centerpiece for the city.”
THE PIER SHOPS — Bart Blatstein
Developer to target 25- to 40-year-olds
Bart Blatstein, the 60-year-old owner of the Philadelphia-based Tower Investments Inc., has always loved visiting his house in Margate.
Until recently, that’s where his interest in the Jersey Shore ended.
Atlantic City “wasn’t something on my radar,” Blatstein says. But with The Pier Shops up for sale, city officials sought him out, going so far as to join him on his Margate deck for shirtless sunbathing. He bought The Pier this year for $2.5 million. It was originally built for $200 million.
“It’s just a one-of-a-kind property,” Blatstein says. “The price was extremely attractive, and the potential. The build-out on that property is enormous. The money spent there is staggering. The bones are great.”
Now, Blatstein says he wants to transform it into a desirable destination for 25- to 40-year-old singles.
“My market is a demographic that has money to spend (and) that wants to go out and spend it,” he says. “I think that Atlantic City needs an injection of youth.” He was very enthusiastic about the synergistic potential of a proposed urban campus for Stockton.
“Love it,” Blatstein says. “Great. Fabulous. All in.”
Blatstein still hasn’t revealed specifics but said entertainment and dining attractions will be added. By next summer, he said, most of The Pier’s vacant properties will be filled.
The developer was also hoping to build a new casino in Philadelphia, but he recently lost his bid for a license. Blatstein now says that’s good news for the pier.
“My loss last week is Atlantic City’s gain,” he says. “It gives me more time, that’s for sure. It frees up time and money.”
Blatstein says the property he’ll create will help reshape the local economy.
“It’s not going to be just a summer town or casinos,” he says. “It’s going to be diverse, which is what everybody wants. There will be a lot of reasons for people to come down other than gambling.”
TROPICANA — Tony Rodio
CEO says casino has always offered more
“If you look at the properties that are holding on and doing well, it’s the properties that have invested into their facilities and that are trying to create an experience beyond gaming.”
As CEO and president of Tropicana Entertainment Inc., Tony Rodio, 56, is eager to pitch his business’ efforts to diversify the options available to Atlantic City’s residents and guests.
“I think that we fit perfectly in that new vision of Atlantic City,” he says. “I think that we are already ahead of the curve, and we want to continue to evolve.”
That evolution will be funded to the tune of $35 million in developments, more than $18 million of which came from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
By next spring, Rodio says, Tropicana’s Boardwalk facade will be transformed by a series of digital displays spanning the length of the building and visible up and down the walk. By day, they’ll display advertisements and messages in high definition. By night, spotlights, music and illuminated palm trees will create a year-round light show that will change with the seasons.
“We think that it is definitely going to help create more traffic and visitation at our end of the Boardwalk,” Rodio says.
Changes are also coming to the back of the building at Pacific and South Morris avenues, which Rodio describes as unattractive and unwelcoming. He says that by the end of 2015, retail spaces will be put in, along with an outdoor seating area and a new entrance into the Tropicana.
By next spring, Rodio says, the property will house a new public fitness center located next to the Blue Mercury Spa, making it the only one in Atlantic City.
Rodio says all of the building’s rooms in the north tower are being renovated, along with the older portion of its casino floor. It’s all part of the company’s plan to attract additional midweek convention business.
“We need to figure out how to best leverage every square foot that we have in the city,” Rodio says, before referencing the core of his company’s message. “We have more to offer, more to do, more value, more variety and more fun than any other property in Atlantic City.”
BORAIE DEVELOPMENT — Wasseem Boraie
New A.C. will need new housing
Wasseem Boraie, 42, traces the genesis of the interest his company, New Brunswick-based Boraie Development LLC, has in Atlantic City to the creation of the city’s Tourism District in 2011.
“We felt (there were) going to be incentives for those developers willing to take a first-mover risk,” he says. “That’s what we do. In every market we’re in, we’re first.”
The South Inlet area where Boraie plans to build a housing and retail development is perhaps the most persistently barren stretch in Atlantic City, its open expanses spreading starkly around the empty, multibillion-dollar Revel Casino-Hotel tower rising above.
But Boraie sees a developing market to cater to. The city is currently moving “from more of a cowboy economy to a more diversified economy,” he says, “which you need for sustainability.”
He references AtlantiCare, the William J. Hughes Technical Center, the future Bass Pro Shops, the soon-to-be renovated Pier Shops and Richard Stockton College, which plans to open a branch campus in the former Showboat Casino Hotel.
“All of these things are basically going to ignite the second big bang for Atlantic City,” he says.
Looking at such developments with the clinical eye of a real estate analyst, Boraie describes two converging realities. The first is “a huge number of well-paid employees” in the region who “don’t come from the casinos.”
The second is a lack of available, quality multifamily housing.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand,” he says. “We feel very comfortable with what our market is going to be.”
Step one, then, will be the construction of a 250-unit apartment building on “Pauline’s Prairie.” The CRDA has set aside $30 million for the project, with the rest to come from private investment. Boraie has said ground could be broken this year, but he won’t confirm the project’s start date.
When it comes, however, Boraie says he’ll be following the success of existing condo developments on the city’s north end, such as Bella and Enclave. He says his residential complex will be open to an array of residents with stable incomes.
“There’s no one person to target,” he says. “It’s a large plethora of different consumers who can afford good luxury living.”
The retail that follows will aim to complement existing businesses rather than compete with them.
“We should allow each market to work off each other,” Boraie says. “I think it’s about cooperation between all the differing nongaming entities.”
As he looks to the future, Boraie remains confident but careful.
“We’re watching it very closely,” he says of the city’s economy. “You want to see things stabilize in general. You’re not trying to catch a falling knife. (But) we feel a lot of the event risk has already been priced into this market.”
STOCKTON COLLEGE — Herman Saatkamp
Showboat deal to cement school’s A.C. ties
“This is the seventh time I have tried to build a campus in Atlantic City since 2003,” says Herman Saatkamp, 72, president of Richard Stockton College. “Lots of plans, lots of efforts, and then nothing resulted.”
What about this time?
He pauses. “I believe something will come of this.”
This November, Stockton announced that it had signed a letter of intent with Caesars Entertainment Corp. to purchase Showboat. The former casino could serve as the epicenter of Stockton’s newest campus as soon as next fall, though Saatkamp is eager to point out that the college is already active locally.
Stockton’s Carnegie Center on Pacific Avenue hosts undergraduate and graduate classes. Dante Hall Theater and the Arts Garage host a range of arts and performances. Saatkamp says the Stockton-backed Champions of Youth Program has dramatically reduced the dropout rate and college matriculation rate for the area high school students it works with.
“Education rarely is just in a classroom,” Saatkamp says. “The real focus at Stockton is the use of that education to build a community.”
Stockton aims to do a lot of building going forward, Saatkamp says. He says the school hired 42 new teachers just last year. It now has 8,700 students on its Galloway Township campus, with 1,200 full-time and 600 part-time staff members.
“We are out of space,” he says, “so the opportunity to move and to grow in other areas is really good for us.”
Saatkamp breaks Atlantic City down into three “hubs” ready for development: The Walk, the Chelsea Heights neighborhood, and the South Inlet and Gardner’s Basin, which is where Showboat is. Each, he says, is fertile ground for a diverse array of new developments that Stockton wants to be part of.
Universities have been a major driver of urban renewal across the country, Saatkamp says, listing cities such as Indianapolis, Tampa, Galveston, Nashville and Pittsburgh.
“Colleges and universities on the whole are stable,” he says, and where they go, companies follow, offering internships and sending managers back to school for graduate degrees.
Saatkamp envisions Stockton’s established programs, such as those in the health sciences, and its developing ones, such as big-data analysis, connecting well with existing area industries, such as casinos, AtlantiCare, and the Hughes center.
He notes that 90 percent of Stockton grads who don’t go on to graduate school stay in the region, and that 83 percent have jobs when they graduate.
It shouldn’t take an economic crisis for cities to recognize the value schools bring to the table, Saatkamp says.
“But the crisis causes people to think, what are our alternatives? You’re at the point where you say, here are a number of roads we can take. In three to five years, it’ll look much better. And one of the best roads you can take is, put higher education as a center for what you’re doing.”
Contact John V. Santore: