ATLANTIC CITY — Dennis Gomes, who was regarded as a maverick, an innovator, a marketing whiz and one of the visionaries of the casino industry, mixed over-the-top showmanship with a shrewd business sense.
He spent nearly 40 years as a gaming executive and regulator, and finally realized his dream to be a casino owner when he bought Resorts Casino Hotel in 2010. Now, that casino will be without the man everyone knew as “Mr. Resorts.”
Gomes, 68, of Margate, died Friday at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia of complications related to kidney dialysis, Resorts spokeswoman Courtney Birmingham said.
“He was on temporary dialysis,” Birmingham said. “There were issues with his kidneys. From what I understand, they don’t know what happened or what transpired.”
Birmingham was unsure whether the dialysis was related to a broken back Gomes suffered in November while moving a table at his vacation home in Las Vegas; Gomes had worked from his Margate home recently while recuperating from the injury. Gomes said in an interview earlier this month with The Press of Atlantic City that he was experiencing intense pain from four broken vertebrae.
Gomes had also been struggling from the Jan. 28 death of his 47-year-old son, Douglas. The cause of his son’s death was not disclosed.
Co-owner and chief executive officer of Resorts, Gomes established himself as one of the leading figures in the casino industry during his career in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Early in his career, as a Nevada gaming investigator, he exposed a money-skimming scam at the Stardust casino in Las Vegas that inspired the 1995 movie “Casino” starring Robert De Niro.
“Dennis was a larger-than-life personality,” said Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, a casino consulting firm.
Attention immediately focused on Gomes’ 29-year-old son, Aaron, as the most likely successor as Resorts’ new CEO. Aaron Gomes has been serving as second-in-command as executive vice president of operations. Resorts’ co-owner, New York real estate magnate Morris Bailey, has pledged to work with the executive team on the transition to new leadership.
“As we all try to adjust to the sudden loss of Dennis Gomes, Morris Bailey, as Dennis’ partner, will continue to work with the executive team that Dennis assembled to continue operating Resorts with the same passion and vision Dennis had,” Resorts said in a statement.
Gomes’ death shook the casino industry. Tributes poured in from some of the top gaming executives and regulators.
“Dennis was not only a leader for the New Jersey casino industry but an innovator for the Tropicana Atlantic City,” said Tony Rodio, president and CEO of Tropicana Casino and Resort. “Dennis was known for his dedication and passion to the company and its employees. A true visionary for Tropicana and Atlantic City, Dennis changed the model and set the tone for a new Atlantic City.”
Donald Trump said Gomes’ sudden death was shocking because he was well-known for his devotion to physical fitness and as a black belt in martial arts.
“Probably I’ve never known anyone else who worked so hard at staying physically fit,” Trump said.
Gomes, a self-proclaimed workout fanatic, once celebrated a groundbreaking event for an expansion project at Tropicana by executing a pair of wall-shattering karate kicks.
He was renowned for concocting wacky publicity stunts that generated national headlines for Atlantic City — a city that those closest to him said he loved.
“He was a guy who deeply cared about the city. We always talked about what we could do together to make things better,” said Don Marrandino, president of the Bally’s, Caesars, Harrah’s Resort and Showboat casinos in Atlantic City owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp.
In one of Gomes’ most outrageous promotions, he pitted gamblers against tic-tac-toe playing chickens at Tropicana for a $10,000 prize.
Linda M. Kassekert, chair of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, recalled Gomes’ response when she asked him whether the chicken stunt would stir controversy among animal-rights advocates.
“He told me, ‘Listen, that chicken is living better than you and me are living. He has his own suite,’” Kassekert said of Gomes’ sense of humor.
Gomes’ career in Atlantic City included turns as a top executive at Tropicana and Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. At Tropicana, he oversaw construction of The Quarter, a $285 million retail, restaurant and nightclub complex that opened in late 2004 and was at the forefront of Atlantic City’s push for more nongaming attractions.
“Much of Dennis’ success can be attributed to the fact that he looked at gaming as something that was fun. That was demonstrated in ways large and small — everything from the tic-tac-toe chickens to The Quarter,” Pollock said. “Dennis knew what people enjoyed and how to entertain people. That is something that is rare and is a little bit of a lost art in gaming.”
Gomes’ time at Resorts also spawned some oddball promotions. He splashed a picture of a female dancer’s nearly nude buttocks on a billboard to promote a stage show. Gomes also erected a gigantic tent in Resorts’ parking lot to house a revue called “The Naked Circus.”
His groundbreaking attractions at Resorts included opening the first gay nightclub in an Atlantic City casino. He also strengthened ties with the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community by hiring Atlantic City’s first GLBT casino marketing director.
Gaming officials said Gomes’ flamboyant style often masked his business acumen. In casino circles, he earned the reputation as “Mr. Fix-it” for his ability to turn around troubled properties. Both the Taj Mahal and Tropicana saw their profits surge under Gomes’ leadership.
Trump called Gomes “a terrific casino man.”
Trump lured Gomes away from the Golden Nugget casino in Las Vegas in 1991 to take over at the Taj Mahal. After four years at the Taj Mahal, Gomes had a messy breakup with Trump. Although Trump officials claimed Gomes was fired, Gomes insisted he resigned because he was not given an ownership stake in the casino. Gomes and Trump later said they were able to patch things up.
“He was a wonderful man and a wonderful person,” Trump said.
After leaving Trump in 1995, Gomes joined Aztar Corp. to oversee the company's Tropicana casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. He left Aztar in 2005 amid a management shake-up. At that time, he made no secret of his desire to return to Atlantic City as a casino owner.
At nearly every turn, Gomes talked about his love for the town. He also pointed to Resorts as the object of his affections when he reached agreement to buy it.
“I want to show the people in this industry what some passion and love of Atlantic City can do,” he said in a 2010 interview, shortly before he became Resorts’ owner.
In buying Resorts, Gomes saved a money-losing casino on the brink of closing. He teamed up with Bailey to buy Resorts for $31.5 million in December 2010. Atlantic City’s oldest casino had defaulted on its mortgage and was taken over by lenders.
With Bailey’s financial backing, Gomes rebranded Resorts with a Roaring ’20s theme that capitalized on the national publicity of the hit HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” which was inspired by Prohibition-era Atlantic City.
“Dennis was a man of integrity who embraced all who knew him with respect and love,” Bailey said in a statement. “We have not only lost a business partner who was an industry leader and visionary — we have lost a friend and family member. We are committed to continuing Dennis’ vision for Resorts and Atlantic City, and our success will be a tribute to his memory.”
Resorts has continued to lose money — $18.5 million in 2010 — but Gomes had predicted the casino would make a turnaround this year. Resorts and the Golden Nugget Atlantic City were the only casinos to post higher gaming revenue in January, both up 3 percent.
Gomes’ attempts to revitalize Resorts were shadowed by controversy at times. Dozens of former cocktail servers have sued Resorts, claiming they were unfairly fired because Gomes decided they did not look sexy enough in the casino’s revealing Roaring ’20s-style costumes.
Gomes slashed wages to reduce Resorts’ operating costs when he took over, prompting raucous protests from Local 54 of UNITE-HERE, Atlantic City’s largest gaming union.
Bob McDevitt, Local 54’s president, issued a statement saying the union will continue negotiations with Resorts to reach a new contract settlement.
“Though we have had our differences, in our recent conversations Dennis expressed his commitment to making Resorts successful and settling a fair contract with the workers. I’m glad to hear that Morris Bailey and the Resorts management team plan to continue Dennis’ vision,” McDevitt said.
Funeral services for Gomes have not been announced. In addition to his son, Aaron, he is survived by his wife, Barbara, and daughters Danielle, Gabrielle and Mary.
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