ATLANTIC CITY - Steel Pier, one of the Boardwalk's most storied landmarks, will become a year-round attraction as part of a $100 million makeover that will create new amusement rides and resurrect one famous older-style act - the diving horse.
The multiyear renovation project is being done by a new ownership group, including the Catanoso family that operated the pier under lease for 20 years and acclaimed Las Vegas architect Paul Steelman. The investors began exploring ways to revitalize the fading pier after buying it last August for $4.25 million from casino operator Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc.
"We hope to make it a showplace again. We want to make it a major destination," said Anthony Catanoso, of Steel Pier Associates. "We're really excited about bringing back some of the old architecture and iconic features, along with new rides. We have what we believe is the perfect balance between the old and new."
With Steelman in charge of designs, the owners plan to blend some of the pier's historic flourishes that resonate with aging baby boomers with all-new attractions appealing to a younger generation of customers.
This summer will see the return of the legendary diving horse act, one of the pier's centerpieces in years past. A horse will plunge into a 12-foot tank of water from a platform 30 or 40 feet up while spectators watch from an amphitheater at the ocean end of the pier, Catanoso said.
About $20 million in pier improvements planned for this year include new amusement rides, arcade games, food and beverage outlets and party areas. In addition, new lighting, signs and a fresh paint job will spruce up Steel Pier's main entryway. The cleanup will include the enclosed skybridge that connects the pier to Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort above the Boardwalk.
"There will be a new look, a new feel. It will be a complete cleanup of the infrastructure," Catanoso explained.
Those upgrades will be followed in the next three years by a more extensive overhaul, done in three phases, that will turn the now-seasonal pier into a year-round entertainment complex.
In 2013, as part of the first phase, thrillseekers will be tantalized by a new roller-coaster and a combination watchtower and carousel-style ride, called the Star Flyer, that will soar 385 feet into the air, Catanoso said.
"The Star Flyer will be the largest of its type in the world," he said.
An expansion project that includes a new building will complement the new rides in 2013. A new food court and arcade area will be tucked inside the building, allowing them to operate year-round.
Also planned for 2013 is a new nightclub that will operate in the skybridge above the Boardwalk. The Steel Pier investment group also bought the bridge from Trump Entertainment last year.
The second phase of the renovation project, set for 2014, will see more of the pier's attractions and rides covered up as the amusement park continues to evolve into a year-round complex. This phase includes plans for a new museum, retail-entertainment space and a Ferris wheel that would tower 250 feet high. Some of the 42 gondolas on the Ferris wheel would include plusher, climate-controlled "VIP" enclosures that will seat up to eight people and accommodate special events, such as weddings.
The third and final phase of renovation stretches into 2015. At that time, the owners plan to re-create the famed Marine Ballroom. The old ballroom hosted Steel Pier's concerts and big-name performers - Frank Sinatra, 1950s heartthrob Ricky Nelson and the Rolling Stones, among them - before it was leveled by a 1969 fire.
The new version of the ballroom will have 2,000 seats and a stage. The seats will be movable, allowing the ballroom to alternately serve as a dance hall, concert arena, wedding chapel and corporate events center.
"We think it will be the hottest wedding destination on the Eastern Seaboard," Catanoso said. "You won't have views anywhere else like it."
The original Steel Pier, dating to 1898, was a wooden structure that jutted much farther out into the ocean than today's nearly 1,000-foot amusement park. In the pier's 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 1969 fire shortened its length by about a third. The pier burned again in a 1982 fire. Under a lease with the Catanosos, it reopened in 1992 as an amusement park atop a flat concrete structure.
The pier owners are discussing a $6 million loan from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency that oversees the city's new Tourism District. Catanoso said an application is being made for the CRDA funds.
The CRDA loan will help leverage private financing that the owners plan to obtain to renovate the pier, Catanoso said. The pier project was granted preliminary approval Wednesday, after the CRDA board also approved a new master plan that guides development in the Tourism District.
"It gave confidence for the project to move forward," CRDA Chairman James B. Kehoe noted of the pier's preliminary approval.
Approval of the pier's CRDA loan is expected at the authority's Feb. 21 board meeting, Kehoe said. He added that Steel Pier is the type of project envisioned in the new master plan to broaden Atlantic City's appeal as a tourist destination.
"I think it's a great first step of a component that will give you something to do, when you're in Atlantic City, that is not casino gambling or shopping," he said. "I think it can be very helpful to that part of the Boardwalk. It can bring different people into town who are not coming now."
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