After leasing the famous Steel Pier on Atlantic City's Boardwalk for 20 years, the Catanoso family and partners bought the amusement property in August.
Anthony Catanoso, of Cape May Court House, and William Catanoso, of Cape May, recently talked about plans to extensively upgrade the pier, develop its spectacular skybridge and lead the revival of family entertainment in Atlantic City. Other partners of Steel Pier Associates include Charles Catanoso, of Lower Township, Ed Olwell, of North Cape May, and Paul Steelman, the Las Vegas-based entertainment architect who designed the Sands Macau in China and the expansion of Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City.
Q: How big a part should non-gaming, family attractions play in the marketing of the new Atlantic City?
A: Anthony Catanoso - They should play at least a 50 percent role in the marketing of Atlantic City going forward. Right now, our distinction as a resort is the beach and Boardwalk, and the venues like ours. You just don't have that in the competing markets, the emerging markets in New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania. They can never replicate what we have here. They're not making any more beaches, and they can try to make boardwalks all they want, but they're never going to duplicate what we have here. Going forward, I think the non-gaming aspect is the way to draw a distinction between us and the other competitive markets.
Q: What does the city need to do overall to unleash the potential of Steel Pier and the rest of its tourism industry?
A: William Catanoso - I think the city needs to do exactly what we're doing. They need to invest in their infrastructure, they need to clean up the Tourism District, they need to relocate some things that are essential and necessary for a city like this but should not necessarily be part of the Tourism District. So they need to do all of that and they need to make it more accessible, make more infrastructure as far as bringing maybe ferry terminals and things of that nature, and maybe kicking up the transit where the train station comes in and the airport, kicking that up a notch. These are all the things that Atlantic City lacks right now and this is where they need to focus, to get the people here easily, affordably, all of that.
Q: Does Atlantic City have the potential to once again be a family destination resort?
A: Anthony Catanoso - Yes, absolutely. With the way the city and state government have come together, and focused their efforts and attention on making this a resort town again, it absolutely has the potential. As a partnership, we're betting a lot of money and our reputation on the fact that Atlantic City can be a destination. We've always said that Atlantic City has the ultimate family entertainment infrastructure, which is the beach and the Boardwalk. Those amenities have never been utilized to their full potential.
Q: How doe the Steel Pier help diversify the city's visitors?
A: William Catanoso - What the Steel Pier does is it brings family entertainment. It brings the people back to the Boardwalk and the beach, that core of what the seashore is - amusements, entertainment, live shows, all of that, and Steel Pier is the thing that brings all that together in one place. It will be the focus of the new Tourism District because of that.
Q: Do state, city and business officials seem ready to promote non-gaming attractions enough?
A: William Catanoso - Yes, absolutely. This right now is the best time to do a project like we're doing. The state is 100 percent on board, bringing Atlantic City back to its glory. The local government is doing everything they can, and the surrounding ones, the state senators, everybody's involved in this, the tourism committees ... all pushing Atlantic City. Atlantic City is the focus point right now and that's why we're excited about doing this now.
Anthony Catanoso - For the first time in our 20-year history - and we just had some meetings with some state agencies - for the first time we're hearing agencies, instead of saying you can't do this, they're saying, how do we make this happen? And that's been a whole change, their vocabulary's changing from no to yes, and how do we make it work. That's been key for us.
Q: Besides encouraging non-gaming marketing, what other efforts do you foresee for the Atlantic City Attractions Group that you helped start?
A: Anthony Catanoso - The Atlantic City Attractions Group right now, I think, its key role will be as a voice or an advisory board to the agencies that are already in place, whether it be the Atlantic City Alliance or the tourism commission for the Tourism District. That should be the primary role. In the 1990s, when the Atlantic City Attractions Group started, there were only about seven members. We were charged with coming up with a brochure, a marketing plan, raising money - we don't have to do that now. Now they've got the Atlantic City Alliance, with a healthy budget and a great director in Liza Cartmell, and it's our goal to become a sounding board for her, an advisory board, a resource for her, to help promote and make people aware of what we have to offer. There are over two dozen groups right now we've identified as family attractions.
Q: What areas remain challenging in terms of the kind of Steel Pier development you'd like to do?
A: Anthony Catanoso - Funding is always an issue. Even though we're having great success and our project has been well received by virtually every government official and agency, funding is difficult in these economic times. Banks are still very gun shy. Atlantic City is a dicey market in their eyes because of the competing markets. But we feel very confident we're going find our funding, the funding we need. We have a very aggressive program over the next three and a half years. But that's probably the biggest challenge, convincing banks and reassuring banks that Atlantic City is a good bet.
Q: How are plans proceeding for a roller coaster on the pier and a nightclub in the skybridge over the Boardwalk?
A: Anthony Catanoso - The coaster plans are coming along very well. We're about to sign a contract probably in the next couple of months for a signature piece that would fit back where the helipad currently is. The helipad will be relocated in the future. We're looking to bring in something unique, something dynamic, and that's moving along fairly well.
We've got three or four major companies interested in developing a nightclub in the bridge area, which includes the top portion of the building that sits on the front of the pier and the skybridge that traverses the Boardwalk into the Trump Taj Mahal.
Q: Are there other additions to Steel Pier - rides, facilities or entertainment - that will be part of your three-year upgrade?
A: Anthony Catanoso - We have quite an extensive plan over the next three years. We have year one, and we have phases one, two and three, and by the end of phase three, about 65 percent of the pier will be covered, and 65 percent of the rides will have a roof. There will be several year-round inside venues on the pier at the end of our three phases.
Q: How much of Steel Pier might eventually be enclosed to make it a year-round amusement attraction?
A: William Catanoso - We're going to have probably about 154,000 square feet of indoor or covered entertainment, whether it be a museum, or the nightclub and restaurants. And three-quarters of our ride package will be under cover by the end of phase three. So the only part of the pier that won't be covered is going to be the major rides that are too big to put inside, at the end of the pier, and our amphitheater. That will be an outdoor venue.
Q: What areas of development will get the benefit of Paul Steelman's special talent for architecture?
A: Anthony Catanoso - Well, Paul is a world-renowned architect and designer. We've worked with him and known him for more than 20 years. The last several years we've done some work with him. He actually has designed a billion-dollar theme park in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. He has a wealth of knowledge, and with seven offices around the world, he knows virtually everybody in every corner of the globe as it relates to the entertainment business. He visits four or five countries each month, he's done the Steel Pier presentation, and just the other night he made the presentation in China, where there are local people either interested in being involved in the development or having a similar development in their area. His design, his knowledge, has been a great advantage for us. You'll see when our full plan goes public the type of talent he brings. Also, he's a local guy. He's from Longport, his father actually worked on Steel Pier in the '40s, and drove the boat for the waterskiing dog, Blackie. Paul has got a great love for Steel Pier.
Q: Is Steel Pier seeking to develop package deals or other joint efforts with casino hotels?
A: William Catanoso - We currently work with all the casinos in town. We kicked off toward the end of last summer our package plan with all of the Harrah's properties. We do a tremendous amount of marketing with Resorts and Tropicana, and we're doing marketing with vitually all the casinos. And this year's going to be even a bigger push because now we've developed this sort of a bus and lunch market with some of the older senior citizens. They come, they love Steel Pier, they love the stories. They grew up here, a lot of them. They come, they have lunch, they're at the ocean, we give them a ride on the carousel, on the Ferris wheel. It's just very exciting for them.
We had a tremendous air show last year. We had over 1,600 people out here, an older crowd. They watched the show, they had lunch, they did a couple of rides, and we've already exceeded that number for this year's air show in bookings.
Plus, we have something unique with our helicopter flights. We do what we call a Sky's the Limit package. It's a thing where young couples do it. They come, they have dinner at one of the restaurants in the casinos, they stay over at the casino, they come here and they ride our helicopter ride, and they spend maybe the next day on the rides. It's really exciting for them, something different, unique.
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