ATLANTIC CITY — A TV commercial for the “Now That’s New Jersey” summer tourism campaign features a Ferris wheel emblazoned with the name of one of the seashore’s most iconic landmarks: Steel Pier.
Despite its historic significance, the century-old amusement pier had lost much of its luster in recent years, raising fears that it might simply fade away like so many other old-time sites on the Boardwalk.
But a new ownership group is investing $21 million this summer to take the pier to a higher level. It is the first phase of a $100 million makeover that will transform the seasonal pier into an enclosed, year-round entertainment complex by 2015.
For now, the rush is on to get Steel Pier ready for Saturday’s opening and a hoped-for blockbuster summer season that the owners estimate will draw 1 million visitors — double last year’s total.
The pier already has gotten a big promotional boost from New Jersey’s summer tourism campaign. Tony Catanoso, a principal in the new ownership group, said Steel Pier meshes with the state’s plan to broaden Atlantic City’s appeal beyond casino gambling, creating a more diverse tourism destination.
“The whole thing is to attract more families here, to go toward more nongaming attractions that will differentiate ourselves from other markets,” he said. “As the campaign evolves, we’ll be a bigger part of it.”
Brothers Tony, Chuck and Billy Catanoso joined with longtime business partner Ed Olwell and acclaimed Las Vegas architect Paul Steelman to buy the pier last year for $4.25 million from casino operator Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc.
The Catanosos had operated the pier under a lease with Trump for 20 years. As owners, they are able to line up long-term financing and make upgrades that they could not do as lessees, Tony Catanoso explained.
With Steelman overseeing designs, the owners plan to blend some of the pier’s old-fashioned charms that resonate with aging baby boomers with new attractions appealing to a younger generation of customers. However, opposition from animal-rights groups led the Catanosos to back away from plans to resurrect one of the Steel Pier’s legendary older acts — the diving horse.
Originally, an amphitheater being built on the pier’s ocean end would have provided seating for spectators watching horses plunge into a tank of water from a platform 30 to 40 feet high.
“It’s going to be the diving horse stadium, sans the diving horse,” Catanoso joked of the amphitheater.
Thrill seekers will have their choice of eight new rides this summer, including the Freedom Flyer, which swings back and forth like a gigantic pendulum while also spinning riders around 360 degrees.
By September, the Steel Pier will introduce one of its centerpiece attractions, a combination watchtower and carousellike ride, called the StarFlyer, soaring 400 feet into the air. Catanoso said it will be the highest ride of its type in the world.
Some of the pier’s popular, older attractions will survive the renovation. The 80-foot Ferris wheel, the Crazy Mouse roller coaster and the old-time horse carousel will share the spotlight with the new rides. However, there are plans for a new 250-foot Ferris wheel to replace the current one in 2014.
New rides are not the only things being added this summer. Steel Pier will hire about 150 extra employees, giving it a total work force of 350. In addition, about 100 construction workers are making upgrades before the pier opens.
“It’s a big boom,” Catanoso said.
The pier’s economic benefits were key in the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s approval of a $6 million loan to help finance upgrades this summer.
“The first phase of improvements are critical to attracting new visitors and return visits to Atlantic City,” CRDA spokeswoman Kim Butler said. “Supporting the Steel Pier with a $6 million loan was in line with the goals set forth in the master plan, and really illustrates our mission in creating and assisting with viable economic development opportunities that will provide more reasons for people to visit Atlantic City.”
Currently, the pier is a whirlwind of construction activity. A tour Monday revealed rides being assembled and tested. Work trucks were lined up at the main entrance. Wheelbarrows, buckets, paint cans, brushes, brooms, electrical cords, hoses and stacks of plywood all crowded the pier’s 1,000-foot-long deck.
“This will all be out of here — all of this junk,” Catanoso said, pointing to the construction material. “Believe it or not, it will be gone before we open.”
Standing outside the pier’s entrance Monday were sisters Elsie Jones, 69, and Bertha Mayo, 68, both of Chester, Pa. They fondly recalled taking their then-small children to Steel Pier in the 1970s. Both of them expressed hope that the new improvements will restore the amusement park to its former glory.
“It was a place where you could bring your kids, and you didn’t have to go all the way to Wildwood,” Jones said.
“Years ago, they had all kinds of rides for children. It was beautiful,” Mayo added.
Besides offering new attractions for children, the pier will begin targeting adults by selling alcohol for the first time at kiosks and deck areas that combine food and drink.
“I don’t think there’s anywhere else you can get a drink 1,000 feet out over the ocean, except in a cruise ship,” Catanoso said.
There will be four areas on the pier that serve alcohol. Catanoso stressed there will be strict controls to prevent children from gaining access to the bars.
Steel Pier’s evolution as a multifaceted amusement park and entertainment attraction will take another big step next summer when the owners add a nightclub or restaurant inside a skybridge over the Boardwalk. The skybridge, which connects the pier with Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, remained empty under Trump’s ownership. The Catanoso group bought the skybridge from Trump and has been in discussions with nightclub and restaurant operators about converting the 20,000 square feet of space for dining or entertainment.
Already, the skybridge is sporting a new coat of white paint. The facade of Steel Pier’s entryway has also been repainted white and given a new layer of stucco to jazz up its appearance. New electrical, water and sewer systems have also been added as part of the renovations.
In the next three years, the owners hope to enclose two-thirds of the rides to make Steel Pier a year-round attraction. They have been discussing plans for a new museum, retail-entertainment space and re-creating the pier’s famed Marine Ballroom. The old ballroom hosted big-name entertainers over the years, ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Rolling Stones, before burning down in a 1969 fire.
In its current incarnation, the Steel Pier bears little resemblance to its “Showplace of the World” heyday in the early and mid-1900s. Huge crowds were drawn by vaudeville acts, headliners, concerts, movies and animal oddities such as the diving horse.
The original pier, dating to 1898, was a wooden structure that jutted much farther out into the ocean than today’s 1,000-foot-long counterpart. Fires in 1969 and 1982 greatly shortened its length. Under a lease with the Catanosos, the pier reopened in 1992 as an amusement park atop a flat concrete and steel structure.
Contact Donald Wittkowski: