ATLANTIC CITY — In 1984, when Donald Trump opened Trump Plaza, his first Atlantic City casino, the man was sizzling — his portfolio of Manhattan properties was the only bona fide needed to convince the public there was a real business acumen behind his trademark brassiness.
Indeed, the big dig on Trump at the time was that he was too shrewd — that as a developer in New York City he wooed officials into granting him cushy concessions with a combination of charisma, cunning and money.
But as voters examine his Atlantic City tenure to decide whether he has the economic chops to be president, they’ll find a record marked by questionable casino management and episodic corporate bankruptcy — the legacy of a fractious know-it-all who brought publicity, tax dollars and thousands of decent jobs to South Jersey, but whose manic and myopic dealmaking ultimately yielded a moribund casino empire, mined into exhaustion and left to wither.
In June, in some remarkable intellectual contortionism, Donald Trump tweeted: “I never went bankrupt but like many great business people have used the laws to corporate advantage—smart!”
Trump, the man, never did go bankrupt.
But the Trump casinos did, cyclically, and with disturbing regularity. “Serial filers,” Fitch Ratings called them.
Still, last summer, about a month before Trump Plaza closed, and with its sister property, Trump Taj Mahal, teetering on the brink of closure, where it remains, Trump said he “did great with Atlantic City.”
An inveterate image-burnisher, he pitches the four bankruptcies — in 1991, 1992, 2004 and 2009 — as markers of commercial prowess; just a “smart!” scrappy businessman playing hardball with mercenary lenders to restructure debt on favorable terms.
“These lenders aren’t babies,” Trump said in Thursday night’s Republican presidential debate. “These are total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people you think.”
But the bankruptcies — starting with Trump Taj Mahal, which bankrupted about a year after Trump opened it using $675 million in patently unsustainable junk bonds — were less displays of cool resourcefulness than frantic episodes of Trump scrambling to bail on bank debt and keep his perennially overleveraged casinos from going belly up.
“The project was dangerous in the beginning,” said Bryant Simon, a historian and Temple University professor who authored “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.”
The first challenge this week was just getting into the debate.
“A lot of people got stuck holding the bag, and he didn’t. So people resented him for that and felt serious financial pain.”
And it wasn’t just faceless bankers who got burned in the bankruptcies.
In the 2009 case, unsecured creditors — low-level investors, contractors, small-time vendors — got less than a penny on the dollar for their claims against Trump Entertainment Resorts (Trump resigned as chairman four days before the bankruptcy filing).
“He defaulted, and he walked away,” said Harry Smith, 87, a retired trial attorney formerly of Manasquan, Monmouth County, currently living in Jupiter, Florida. Smith saw about $91,000 evaporate from his retirement account when his investment in Trump bonds soured.
In Atlantic City, “he did do great,” fumed Smith’s wife, Lillian, 76. “He walked away with our money. But none of those casinos did great.”
“Luckily, we could absorb the loss,” she said. “You can find a lot of people who have a lot sadder story than ours. We’re just mad as hell.”
Contractors, who often bear the brunt of corporate bankruptcy, regarded Trump “as a jerk and a bum,” said Dave Farragut, president of United States Roofing Corp., a large roofing firm based in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Trump was a chronic haggler “notorious for stringing people out and not paying,” according to Farragut, who said he experienced that firsthand on a $600,000 roofing job at Trump Taj Mahal.
“It was a joke among all the subs that you’d tack on an extra 10 percent onto your bids” to hedge against delayed payments, he said. “He was slow pay, everybody knew.”
Thousands of people did get paid, though — on time, for decades.
By the end of 1991, Trump’s three casinos employed more than 12,700 people, nearly one-third of the entire Atlantic City casino workforce.
And Trump, gushed Theresa Volpe, 57, who served drinks at Trump Plaza for 26 years — including to the man himself — “was a very good boss.”
“Employee picnics, employee parties. I mean, he took care of us.”
“He was very receptive to our union and our benefits and pension plan,” said Volpe, who’s been cobbling together a living as a bartender and supermarket cashier since Trump Plaza closed in September.
Bob McDevitt, longtime president of Local 54 of Unite Here, which represents casino workers, declined to comment for this story. But in the past, the labor leader, who spent years as a Taj bartender, characterized Trump as a union-friendly, reliably cooperative partner in negotiations over labor contracts.
In 2004, when 10,000 casino workers went on strike at seven Atlantic City casinos for more than a month, the Trump casinos weren’t among them.
“He didn’t nickel or dime us,” Volpe said.
He didn’t scrimp on entertainment, either.
“Holyfield, Mike Tyson... Sugar Ray Leonard ... Donna Summer, Englebert (Humperdinck), Paul Anka, Hall and Oates ...” Volpe ticked off.
Volpe’s larger-than-life boss bankrolled some of Atlantic City’s most iconic events.
The 91-second 1988 heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks — made possible when Trump paid an $11 million fee to bring the bout to Convention Hall, shattering the boxing-industry record — became the highest-grossing boxing match ever. The event remains a byword for Atlantic City’s golden years. And Trump remains the greatest impresario Atlantic City has ever seen, and likely ever will.
“There are people in Atlantic City who appreciated that Trump bet on Atlantic City,” said Simon, the historian. “That investment mattered to the city.”
But Trump was a self-promoter, focused on himself and his properties. Over the years, in interviews about the city, he’s come off as less of a booster and more of a scold.
Roadwork to ease traffic in and out of Brigantine? “The most ridiculous improvements I have ever seen,” he said at a 1986 press conference.
A Missouri Avenue monorail proposed two years later? An “ugly elevated structure” — a “horror” in the making.
A tunnel connecting the Atlantic City Expressway to the Marina District? Merely a publicly financed “driveway” to his would-be competitors’ doorstep.
That “driveway,” aimed at allowing easy access to the district from Route 30 and the Atlantic City Expressway, became a flashpoint in politicians’ acrimonious dealings with Trump, who sued in March 1997 to block the $330 million project, arguing the state was improperly financing the tunnel to coax casino magnate Steve Wynn into building his own megaresort in the Marina District.
The tunnel was completed in 2001. Wynn’s casino — a botanical-themed affair dubbed Le Jardin Palais — never sprouted.
And Trump, in typical triumphant fashion, couldn’t help but needle his longtime nemesis.
“Thanks for the tunnel,” he quipped days before its grand opening. His Trump Marina Hotel Casino became one of the project’s main beneficiaries.
“Isn't that ironic?” he said. “I'd rather be lucky than good.”
“I think his personality that people are experiencing on the campaign trail,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, who as Atlantic City mayor clashed with Trump over the tunnel in the ’90s, “is something that we experienced here in Atlantic City. I experienced it firsthand. He can be obnoxious.”
To Trump, Atlantic City was a city of ingrates. But was there something to that? Did city officials fail to recognize they needed Trump as much, or more, than he needed them?
In Whelan’s world, Trump was a cipher. His resorts, Whelan said, “would have got done without him,” referring to the fact that Trump Castle (which became Trump Marina) was built by Hilton, Trump Plaza opened as a partnership with Harrah’s and construction on Trump Taj Mahal began under Resorts Casino Hotel.
“I don't know if he’s really had a long-term impact,” said Whelan, D-Atlantic. No mention of Trump’s decades-long status as one of South Jersey’s largest employers.
Ed Kline, who as mayor of Brigantine battled Trump over a 1986 road project, ultimately became pals with the developer. Years ago, lunching alfresco at Trump Castle, the former foes traded fatherly advice.
“I said, ‘Donald, one thing my dad told me when I started in business: Always take somebody to lunch before you hire them. If they eat slow, they work slow. Don’t hire them.’”
Trump giggled, Kline said, and replied: “My father told me: Never follow an empty wagon.”