ATLANTIC CITY — Critics often said the old Trump Marina Hotel Casino looked drab and unexciting. Now, the refurbished casino is known as the Golden Nugget Atlantic City and is the product of a $150 million transformation under its new owner, Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta.

Praising Fertitta and emphasizing the casino’s dramatic turnaround in just nine months, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission granted Golden Nugget its first gaming license Wednesday.

“Mr. Fertitta promised a lot more than just patch and paint, and he has delivered,” commission Chair Linda M. Kassekert said moments before the license was approved by a 3-0 vote.

Fertitta’s privately held Landry’s Inc., a Houston-based gaming, restaurant and entertainment conglomerate, bought Trump Marina last May for $38 million and immediately rebranded it as the Golden Nugget. Landry’s owns two other Golden Nugget casino hotels in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev.

Fertitta, who was not at Wednesday’s commission meeting, promised earlier that he would use his own money to revive a deteriorated property that had been losing millions of dollars. Kassekert said Fertitta came through.

“He has reached into his own pockets to pump tens of millions of dollars into this property and, in doing so, has demonstrated an impressive commitment to the property, to its employees and to Atlantic City.”

In all, Fertitta is spending about $150 million to remodel the hotel rooms, spruce up the casino floor and add new upscale restaurants, lounges, a pool and a spa. Moreover, the casino’s drab, hospital-like exterior has been given an extreme makeover, and is now sporting a glitzier, gold-hued facade.

“They have changed the appearance of the building. From an old, tired, ignored property, it’s totally refurbished,” Richard Liem, Landry’s chief financial officer, said of the transformation while testifying during the commission’s meeting.

Liem said the renovation project is about 80 percent finished, with the rest being done by April or May. Golden Nugget is planning to have a formal grand opening celebration in May.

Golden Nugget has tantalized the public with gigantic signs and banners beckoning everyone to “Watch the transformation.” It has adopted the slogan “Out with the old, in with the Gold.”

“It’s going to be about as good or better than any other place in the city. It’s a huge investment,” Liem said in an interview with The Press of Atlantic City.

In its days as Trump Marina, the casino was one of the poorest performing properties in town. Former owner Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. made no secret of its desire to sell the casino after the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2010.

For 2010, Trump Marina suffered an $8.3 million operating loss. In 2011, a year split between Trump Marina and the Golden Nugget, its gaming revenue plunged 15 percent to $125.2 million, the lowest total among Atlantic City’s 11 casino hotels.

There may have been signs of a financial turnaround in January. Golden Nugget and Resorts Casino Hotel were the only two Atlantic City gaming halls to post a revenue increase for the month, both up 3 percent. Already, it appears Golden Nugget’s renovations are boosting business.

“It’s expected those renovations will pay off handsomely,” said James Fogarty, a deputy state attorney general with the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.”

Liem told the commission that he expects Golden Nugget to start turning a profit this year. Gaming regulators noted that the casino will be helped by being virtually debt-free. Golden Nugget has a $10 million revolving loan as a cushion, but the rest of the expenses are being paid by Fertitta.

“Golden Nugget is as close to being debt-free as one could reasonably expect. And when is the last time we heard something like that?” Fogarty said in remarks to the commission.

Golden Nugget, like the rest of the existing casinos, is preparing for the April 2 grand opening of a powerful new competitor, the $2.4 billion Revel megaresort. However, Liem said he believes Golden Nugget and Revel will act in tandem to expand the Atlantic City market and make it more competitive with casinos in surrounding states.

“We’re hopeful that Revel and the Golden Nugget will draw additional traffic from the outlying places,” he said.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258