A proposal to add a $134 million conference center at Harrah's Resort Atlantic City could result in further development in the Marina District, Caesars Eastern Division President Don Marrandino said Wednesday.
Caesars Entertainment's plans to construct the hall on the southwest corner of its property became public last month after the company turned to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for $45 million to finance the significant expansion project.
On Wednesday, Caesars officials gave nearly the same presentation during a sparsely attended public hearing on the project, necessary before the CRDA can vote on appropriating any funding.
"If we're honest, (Atlantic City is) really not a player in the corporate meetings business," said Kevin Ortzman, senior vice president and general manager of Bally's and Showboat, properties also owned by Caesars. "We have the opportunity to change that."
Following the brief hearing, Marrandino described the center as 200,000 square feet over two floors, 100,000 square feet of which would be conference space. The rest would include space for offices, storage and connecting hallways to the rest of the Harrah's property. Looking at an aerial depiction of the center, Marrandino said he hopes the project, if approved, could spur development on the vacant 72-acre parcel sandwiched between Harrah's and Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
At one point, MGM Resorts International had plans to build a $5 billion MGM Grand casino on the property, but those plans were scrapped in 2008. MGM has since decided to divest of all of its Atlantic City property after the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement objected to the company's partnership in a Macau casino with Hong Kong businesswoman Pansy Ho.
MGM spokeswoman Yvette Monet confirmed that the company has no plans to invest any further in Atlantic City. That would leave future development in the hands of any potential buyers.
"Right now, it's literally wasted space," Marrandino said. "With the conference center maybe that could change."
When plans for the center were first publicly unveiled last month, they were met by skepticism from CRDA board members who questioned whether the proposal for the center would only cannibalize Atlantic City's meetings market, impacting the Atlantic City Convention Center in particular.
Caesars officials said their conference center would cater to corporate meetings and special events, rather than the trade shows and large-scale conferences that the Convention Center currently attracts. The CRDA is leading a study, funded by Caesars and set to be completed within a month, that will analyze the potential impact of Harrah's proposal on the Convention Center.
"If I can oversimplify this, (the Convention Center) is a steel cement facility for trade groups that brings buyers and sellers together," Ortzman said, noting that by comparison Harrah's center would target corporate business meetings and special events that aren't currently drawn to Atlantic City. "This actually introduces a new segment of business to Atlantic City."
The Convention Center as well as concert and sports venue Boardwalk Hall are operated by the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. ACCVA President Jeff Vasser said he supports the proposal and noted that many of Atlantic City's casino hotels don't have significant meeting space.
"I think that our market is under-served as far as meeting space goes. We've got a great Convention Center, but we don't have that intermediate-sized facility," Vasser said. "It's just another tool in my tool kit for us to go out and sell. It's another product to differentiate our market."
The CRDA is scheduled to vote on financing for the center at its next meeting Nov. 20, CRDA Deputy Executive Director Susan Ney Thompson said.
If approved, Caesars hopes to break ground on the project in January and see the facility open by July 2014. The center would generate about 340 construction jobs and between 60 and 140 permanent jobs.
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