ATLANTIC CITY — The real estate mogul whose name was synonymous with the Atlantic City casino scene years ago continues to see his brand fade from the resort’s neon-splashed skyline, but Donald Trump may be plotting a comeback.
On the same day the financially troubled Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino closed its doors, Trump said Tuesday he may rescue the Plaza and also buy sister property Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
“I’m looking at it,” Trump told The Press of Atlantic City. “We’ll see what happens. If I can help the people of Atlantic City, I’ll do it.”
Trump also took to the Twitter universe Tuesday to proclaim his possible return to Atlantic City. Although his name has remained on the two casinos, he has only a minority stake in their ownership and has nothing to do with their management.
“I left Atlantic City years ago, good timing. Now I may buy back in, at much lower cost, to save Plaza & Taj. They were run badly by funds!” Trump said in his Twitter account.
Trump’s sniping was aimed at the hedge funds and corporate bondholders that have owned the Trump-branded casinos since buying them out of bankruptcy in 2010 for $225 million. Trump worked out an agreement with them at that time to keep his name on the Plaza and Taj Mahal in return for up to a 10 percent ownership stake in the reorganized company, but with no management involvement.
Now, Trump is suing the casinos’ owners, alleging that they allowed the Trump properties to deteriorate so badly they no longer meet the luxury standards of the Trump brand.
Todd Fogarty, a spokesman for Avenue Capital, the New York hedge fund that led the bondholders’ bankruptcy buyout of the Trump casinos, declined to respond to Trump’s criticism.
The latest twist in Trump’s fallout with the hedge funds is his Twitter flurry. In it, he not only raises hope that he can salvage the Plaza and Taj Mahal, but also help save Atlantic City in the process.
“Does anybody notice that Atlantic City lost its magic after I left years ago,” Trump asked in a series of tweets. “It is so sad to see what has happened to Atlantic City. So many bad decisions by the pols over the years — airport, convention center, etc.”
Trump strongly objected to the construction of the $268 million Atlantic City Convention Center in 1997 at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway, five blocks from the Boardwalk. He had urged state political leaders at that time to instead expand the city’s old convention center, since renamed Boardwalk Hall, to take advantage of its prime Boardwalk location.
Trump believes the city squandered an opportunity to lure major conventions to town by not using Boardwalk Hall. Pointing to the off-Boardwalk location of the Atlantic City Convention Center, he said the city has been saddled with an expensive, largely empty building.
“If they had taken the old convention center and added three walls and a roof, they would have had one of the best centers. Instead, they had a piece of garbage in its place,” Trump said in an interview with The Press. “It was a disaster.”
Trump said the convention center’s construction off the Boardwalk has come back to haunt Atlantic City — especially now, as it struggles to generate new business to offset four casino closings this year, including Trump Plaza.
“It’s very sad to see what’s happening to Atlantic City,” he said. “A lot of it is attributable to bad decisions made by politicians over the years.”
Trump was one of the casino industry’s dominant figures from the 1980s to the early 2000s. His casino empire once included three Trump-branded casinos in Atlantic City, but the old Trump Marina Hotel Casino was sold off after the 2010 bankruptcy buyout. Since the early 1990s, the Trump casinos have gone through four bankruptcies, including the recent bankruptcy filing by the Taj Mahal.
Trump, however, used his Twitter account to say the casino bankruptcies did not involve him personally.
“For losers and haters, I NEVER went bankrupt,” he tweeted.
He also reminded his Twitter followers that he made a great deal of money in Atlantic City years ago, but currently has “ZERO involvement” in the city’s affairs or its casino industry. But that would changed dramatically if he buys Trump Plaza and the Taj Mahal.
Speculation that Trump is serious about buying the casinos was fueled by the appearance of the Trump helicopter at the Taj Mahal on Tuesday. Trump, though, denied he was on board.
Some suspect Trump’s Twitter talk may simply be a ploy to gain publicity. They also questioned whether the Trump brand has enough cachet to revive the Plaza and Taj Mahal and help pull Atlantic City out of its economic crisis.
“Donald is a guy who likes to see his name in the paper,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic. “He’s never been shy about seeking publicity or obtaining publicity. The question is whether this is more publicity for Donald or whether he is serious about coming back to Atlantic City in a real way. We’ll see down the line.”
Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor who had his share of political battles with Trump over the years, challenged Trump to “put his money where his mouth is” by investing in the Trump casinos.
“Is Donald Trump looking to get some publicity, or is he serious? And if he’s serious, come on in and write some checks,” Whelan said.
Trump Plaza’s closing followed the shutdown of the Atlantic Club, Showboat and Revel casinos this year. The bankrupt Taj Mahal is threatening to close its doors in November unless it wins cost-cutting concessions from the labor unions.
One casino analyst doubts Trump can make a difference, even if he does buy back the Plaza and Taj Mahal.
“I can see Donald’s ego wanting him to come back as a savior,” said Steve Norton, a former Atlantic City casino executive who now serves as a private gaming consultant. “Donald has a name that people recognize in some places. In the real estate world, he’s considered to have quality properties, but that has not translated into the Atlantic City properties.”
Norton said the Trump casinos have been neglected over the years and are in “bad shape.” Trump, or any other buyer, would have to make a substantial investment in the Plaza and Taj Mahal to upgrade their appearance and amenities, he noted.
At one point, Norton led a group of investors that was unsuccessful in attempts to buy Trump Plaza for $30 million. The group was prepared to spend a total of $100 million to renovate the property, Norton said.
Norton maintained that the Trump name alone is not enough to rejuvenate the Trump casinos. If Trump returns as a casino owner, he, along with the rest of the Atlantic City market, will have to overcome intense competition from casinos in surrounding states, Norton stressed.
“I don’t think Donald’s name would help the casinos that much,” he said. “Our problem is, other casinos have opened up and cut off traffic from Philadelphia and New York.”
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