Steeplechase Pier, once the regular host to an 85-piece orchestra conducted by John Philip Sousa, could soon bear the name of another musician if it’s rebuilt as one of singer Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurants.
Resorts Casino Hotel has applied to the state for an environmental permit to rebuild the pier — destroyed in a 1988 fire — and construct a restaurant, bar and surf shop in its place. According to the casino’s application, the $6 million project would construct a Margaritaville Landshark Bar & Grill in the footprint of the former pier.
Most of what remained of the pier located between Pennsylvania and North Carolina avenues was demolished in 1996 as officials called it an eyesore that reinforced perceptions of Atlantic City as an unattractive place to visit. What is left today is a small platform with three carts, which would be demolished when construction begins as soon as September. The project would take a year to complete, the application says.
Courtney Birmingham, a spokeswoman for Resorts, said nothing has been finalized with the project and declined to answer specific questions. She said the casino’s permit application was “just a preliminary exploration so we could be prepared if the right opportunity was presented.”
Aaron Gomes, executive vice president of operations at Resorts, said earlier this month that the casino has been talking to Buffett of “Margaritaville” fame and other potential developers about the site. It would be premature to talk about specific plans for the property, he said at the time.
Buffett’s involvement, however, would instantly bring some high-profile name recognition to the project if the singer becomes one of the developers — and that notoriety could draw larger crowds, which Resorts speaks to in its 78-page permit application.
“The activities on the pier are intended to help reverse the decline in visitation to Atlantic City in general and Resorts in particular,” the application states. “In earlier permit applications Resorts documented traffic generation and parking adequacy based upon high levels of hotel occupancy and visitation to the property. Those levels are not currently being attained, and it is the intention of this project to return Resorts to the occupancy and visitation levels previously analyzed.”
Buffett, who is scheduled to perform at Boardwalk Hall on Aug. 4, heads a casino and restaurant empire that uses the “Margaritaville” brand, inspired by his 1970s hit song of the same name. In May, he opened the Margaritaville Casino in Biloxi, Miss.
He was also was part of plans in 2008 to transform Trump Marina Hotel Casino into a tropical-themed “Margaritaville” gambling resort. The proposed $316 million sale then of Trump Marina fell apart, though, leaving Buffett out of the picture.
While Buffett may be involved in the new development project, Gomes denied that the singer is looking to purchase the casino.
“Jimmy Buffett is not buying Resorts,” Gomes said.
Resorts owns the development rights for the former Steeplechase Pier. Immediately after it was torn down in 1996, discussions about rebuilding it commenced. Most recently in 2001, the casino’s owners disclosed plans to put 200 hotel suites, a ballroom, a pool and shops there, but the plans never moved forward.
Adjacent to Steel Pier, Steeplechase Pier was built in 1899 and was originally called Auditorium Pier. At first, musical acts played there, but owners soon realized that clever beachgoers could avoid entrance fees and listen to the music from the beach. Amusement rides then became the main attraction, and for years the pier was referred to as the “Funny Place.”
The pier went through several rebuilds, first from a fire in 1932 and then following the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944. Following the storm, the pier was rebuilt and operated until it finally shut down in 1986. It was used only as a heliport allowing wealthy visitors to land directly in the heart of the resort until another fire in 1988 rendered it totally unusable.
The newest plans for Margaritaville call for elaborate island-themed landscaping, including 9-foot-tall artificial palm trees facing the Boardwalk. Nearest to the Boardwalk would be an octagonal-shaped surf shop, according to renderings by Atlantic City-based SOSH Architects.
A separate application for another environmental permit shows that Resorts plans to capitalize on an island-themed attraction extend beyond the plans to rebuild the pier. The casino is also considering a beach bar and more than a dozen cabanas starting at the edge of the rebuilt pier and extending south toward North Carolina Avenue. The plans also call for two beach volleyball courts, a bocce ball court, two horseshoe pits and a fire pit.
Resorts owns most of the beach in question, but one lot is currently owned by the city and leased to Sunny Side Up Beach Rentals, Inc., of Margate.
The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority will have to grant site plan approvals for the project to move forward. Resorts has not yet applied for that approval, according to the CAFRA application.
Kim Butler, a spokesman for CRDA, said the authority has not received any financing applications for the project.
Resorts’ application to the Department of Environmental Protection is on file in the Municipal Clerk’s Office in Atlantic City.
A 30-day comment period on the application begins July 3.
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