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Diana Ross

Much has changed in one year at Hard Rock, Ocean casinos

ATLANTIC CITY — From ownership changes and restaurant closings to added gaming amenities and capital improvements, neither Hard Rock Hotel & Casino nor Ocean Casino Resort is the same today as when they opened June 27, 2018.

For Ocean, the biggest change has been one in philosophy, said Mike Donovan, chief marketing officer and senior vice president. The property changed ownership in January when Luxor Capital Group, a New York-based hedge fund that had been one of the principal investors, assumed control.

From that moment on, Ocean tried to emphasize its casino while capitalizing on its hotel and nongaming amenities, rather than the other way around, Donovan said. Even during its two-year run as the Revel Casino Hotel, the property never focused on core gambling players, he said.

The attitude change is emphasized in the property’s recent name change, from Ocean Resort Casino to Ocean Casino Resort.

“The property was never marketed as a casino before,” said Donovan, who came to Ocean from Tropicana Atlantic City with several other executives. “It just feels completely different today than when I walked in the door (in March).”

Lan Nguyen, who sat on a bench on the Boardwalk Thursday morning, said it was her second time staying and gambling at Ocean. The 29-year-old, originally from western Massachusetts, said she enjoyed her first stay and decided to return because the casino offered her complimentary rooms.

“I prefer it because it’s nice, it’s clean, it’s newer looking. The view is good,” she said.

At Hard Rock, the changes have been more incremental, said Joe Lupo, president of the casino hotel.

The former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort underwent a more than $500 million transformation in 2017 and 2018, so most of what has been done since the opening has happened behind the scenes, he said.

“So there weren’t these big changes that were made (in the last year), but it’s more refinement of how do we provide better access and a better customer experience,” Lupo said.

But Lupo himself was a major change at Hard Rock when he took over for former property President Matt Harkness in late 2018. Lupo, a former executive at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, had been working at a Hard Rock property in Tampa, Florida, before returning to Atlantic City.

Since his arrival, Lupo said, Hard Rock has been tweaking its gaming options, which has made a difference in revenue. In May, Hard Rock was second in the market in slot revenue.

“You look at numbers, and you’re able to see where patrons are playing. So we were able to identify games to be added or deleted,” he said. “We’ve been aggressive at gaining more slot product and adding more slots to the floor.”

Opening day of Ocean Resort Casino

On the nongaming side, more has been done at Ocean than Hard Rock.

The short-lived Cereal Town and Ivan Kane’s Royal Jelly Burlesque Club (a Revel holdover) both closed at Ocean. Wahlburgers, a casual-restaurant concept co-owned by celebrity brothers Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, had its official grand opening last week at Ocean despite being open for several months already.

Hard Rock unveiled its Sugar Factory restaurant shortly after opening last summer.

While Ocean opened with one of the largest sports betting facilities in town — the William Hill Sportsbook is 7,500-square feet — and placed it right in the center of the gaming floor, Hard Rock was late to the game. A conflict with the NFL and its naming rights deal for the Miami Dolphins stadium delayed the introduction of sports betting for Hard Rock in Atlantic City. The property opened a temporary location before the Super Bowl and later unveiled its permanent facility in March.

Both Hard Rock and Ocean continue to make capital investments.

Gallery: Hard Rock Hotel & Casino officially opens

Lupo said Hard Rock has been updating its HVAC system, adding signage and improving the back-of-the-house for employees. Ocean is making progress on its buffet and installed a new elevator that makes it easier for hotel guests to enter the casino floor.

“We heard what guests wanted, and we’ve tried to respond to that,” Donovan said.

Just outside, visitors walking on the Boardwalk are noticing the difference.

“Without these two, it was always dead and a little sketchy to walk down this way,” said Vinny McAndress, of Philadelphia. “It extended the life of this boardwalk.”

The two casinos’ new energy also has spread to the city as a whole.

“It changed a lot since they opened. It seemed like Atlantic City was going down a little,” said Brenda Hill, 71, who has been coming to Atlantic City since she was a child. “It feels like it’s kicking up. It feels happier. It feels nice.”

GALLERY: Mark Wahlberg joins F45 fitness class at Ocean's anniversary celebration


While Ocean Casino Resort, right, has undergone a number of major changes in the past year, changes at the also-year-old Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City have been more subtle.

Mullica police chief gets raise, goes on paid leave and will retire

MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Two weeks after giving police Chief John Thompson a new contract and retroactive raise, Township Committee approved his request to be put on paid leave through the end of the year, when he will retire.

Capt. Brian Zeck, son-in-law of Mayor Chris Silva, has moved into the position of acting chief, said Committeewoman Kristi Hanselmann, per state police rules and regulations.

After an executive session at Tuesday night’s committee meeting, the governing body voted to authorize Thompson’s request for a six-month administrative leave.

Only Committeeman Jim Brown voted against the authorization. Silva, who recused himself from the executive session, abstained.

“To me the whole thing just smells,” said Brown. “We don’t have that kind of money. It seems like trying to throw somebody a bone to retire early.”

Thompson will collect about $104,000 over the next six months. About $62,000 comes from his salary, while the remaining $42,000 will come from retroactive salary for the years 2016 through 2019 from the new contract.

Thompson, 44, declined to comment.

At the June 11 meeting, Hanselmann read a statement from Thompson denying rumors he was being pressured to retire.

“The Press has reported that I’m being forced to retire by the township,” Hanselmann read. “This is not true. If I, and when I, elect to retire, it will be my choice.”

“There is no story here,” township labor attorney John Hegerty said in an email Wednesday.

Hegerty said after Thompson’s new contract was approved at the June 11 meeting, “the chief then decided that this would be his final contract and ... gave the township his six-month notice of his intent to retire,” Hegerty wrote.

Hegerty said the chief requested the leave for personal reasons and “the township agreed that it was in (its) best interest to turn over the day-to-day operation of the Police Department during this transitional period, as well as the chief’s best interest to grant this request.”

The chief had requested months ago that his contract be reopened, Hegerty said, “following the negotiation of the captain’s contract.” Zeck had negotiated with Hanselmann a 2019 salary that was within $1,000 of Thompson’s 2019 salary under the old chief contract.

Thompson had also proven, Hegerty said, that he was paid far less than other Atlantic County chiefs of police.

Thompson’s new contract requires him to “transfer all authority and responsibility to his successor” six months prior to retirement.

But he must “make himself available by email, phone or by arranged meeting at the acting chief’s request to assist, advise or provide training to the acting chief,” according to the contract.

Brown said Thompson was supposed to turn in his vehicle, gun and badge Wednesday.

Under the previous contract, the chief was required to transfer full control to his successor for a period of just 90 days prior to retirement.

At the June 11 meeting, the committee voted to change its requirements under the New Jersey State Health Benefits Program to require the chief of police to have just 24 years of service with the township — down from 25 previously — to retire with full health benefits.

Thompson will have 24 years of service this year.

The township has opened an internal affairs investigation against Thompson, according to a resolution to approve a settlement agreement with him that was pulled from voting at the last minute at a May meeting. But that did not factor into the administrative leave request or granting, Hegerty said.

Thompson’s new contract raised his 2019 salary from $113,500 to $128,500. In 2020, Thompson would receive $129,500 if he stayed in the job.

The new contract increases his annual salary by $6,000 for 2016, $9,000 for 2017, $12,000 for 2018, $15,000 for 2019 and $14,000 for 2020. That’s a total increase of $56,000 for five years.

Township personnel policies allow full-time workers to request paid leave.

“Unusual or extenuating circumstances may arise that warrant granting a period of paid leave which does not fall under any of the other leave policies,” according to the township’s personnel policies. “Administrative leave is considered time worked for the purposes of computing pay; vacation, personal and sick leave accruals, and holiday eligibility.”

The committee also voted Tuesday to change the departmental oversight of some committee members.

Silva had been in charge of public safety, with oversight of the Police Department. He is now head of administration, and Committeeman Larry Riffle is moving to public safety, Silva said.

mpost-pressofac / MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST/Staff Writer  


These birds are taking over a Stone Harbor marsh, and NJ biologists are worried

Half a mile off Stone Harbor Boulevard sits a football field-sized island that was once lush with trees and shrubs, but that vegetation has been facing a slow death.

The culprit, at least for the past few years?

The expansion of two sub-colonies of dark, long-necked water birds, called double-crested cormorants. They stand out from others, with their orange bills and green eyes and their droppings that destroy plant life.

In 2013, there were 30 of them nesting on Gull Island.

Now, the wetland is home to 111 cormorants, their population more than tripling in six years, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Gull island cormorant Stone Harbor map

That jump is worrisome for state biologists, who say the cormorants are pushing out other wading birds and may be making it uninhabitable for any other species in a matter of years. It could become an issue down the road, given the few places along the shore where birds can live safe from predators.

“(The state) is concerned about the impacts of cormorants on other bird species on Gull Island as well as the overall ecological health of the island,” DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.

Cormorants’ acidic feces changes soil chemistry and kills vegetation, though it’s not known why. On Monday, a flock sat in nests on barren trees toward the center of the island, as gulls and other birds circled overhead and sat closer to the island’s edge.

When the cormorants moved in, they evicted other species from the trees.

Great egrets, tri-colored herons and glossy ibises are among those that have fled their nests on Gull Island’s trees to nearby wetlands or to other states entirely, Hajna said.

As cormorant excrement, called guano, builds up in the coming years, he said, more birds will likely move out.

That could be a problem because development along the Jersey Shore and beach erosion have left fewer places for wading birds to nest free from predators, said David Mizrahi, vice president of research and monitoring at New Jersey Audubon.

In its 2018 report on ”Species of Greatest Conservation Need,” the state Division of Fish and Wildlife called the cormorant’s nesting in trees on Gull Island a “grave concern” and described the vegetation there as “all but condemned to mortality.”

Fishers and clammers who travel the Great Sound say cormorants are becoming bothersome, but not yet a problem.

In places that have higher concentrations of cormorants, Mizrahi said there’s sometimes conflict between anglers and the birds, which consume an average of one pound of fish per day.

“In areas where they occur in higher densities, they can be perceived as a problem,” Mizrahi said.

John Daffin, a clammer from Egg Harbor Township who docks at the Scotch Bonnet Marina on Stone Harbor Boulevard, said he sees what looks like hundreds of cormorants flocking on and around Gull Island when he sets off into the bay, and he’s concerned for the island’s ecology.

He believes the population should be controlled before their numbers increase more dramatically. Cormorants saw a drop nationwide in the 1960s with the introduction of the pesticide DDT, but have since increased and can be found across the country.

“They totally killed the vegetation out there,” Daffin said. “The population is out of control.”

States, individuals and organizations can apply for depredation permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lethally control the birds.

On an island in the Great Lakes, there were nearly 2,000 cormorants in 2004 when the federal government allowed a hunter to release raccoons there to raid their nests, bringing the population down to zero. Now, there are about 400 nests, and renewed calls for control measures, Michigan Radio reported last year.

But Hajna said New Jersey officials are trying to control the cormorants on Gull Island by egg addling.

That’s when biologists temporarily remove fertilized cormorant eggs from their nests, terminate embryo development and put the eggs back. It’s a wildlife management technique also employed to reign in Canada geese populations.

“The Division (of Fish and Wildlife) is evaluating possible management strategies to address this situation and is implementing limited addling of cormorant eggs for evaluation purposes,” Hajna said.

Many years ago, Hajna said, the state also placed dredge materials on the marsh, which would have helped trees and shrubs take hold.

Despite habitat loss, some say the emergence of nesting cormorants is something to celebrate.

Hans Toft, a retired science teacher at Cape May County Technical High School, last visited Gull Island about seven years ago to band ospreys, and said he saw no cormorants nesting then.

Their presence on the wetland, he said, shows the increasing biodiversity of New Jersey marshes. A handful of different species still walk across the island and fly overhead.

“I didn’t believe there were really cormorants out here nesting,” said Toft as he looked at the island from a boat. “But there they are.”

PHOTOS of birds on Gull Island

Murphy vows to protect free community college funding in 2020 budget

Gov. Phil Murphy is gearing up for a fight to increase the funding he made available last year for the state’s free community college program.

“I urge the Legislature to stand with the students here,” Murphy said during a news conference this week. “I am not going to let this go.”

The state Legislature last week halved Murphy’s proposed investment in free community college for the upcoming 2020 budget. On Wednesday, the governor gathered state and county education officials at Passaic County Community College to push for the $58.5 million he proposed to fund the Community College Opportunity Grant program.

CCOG, which began as a pilot program in spring 2019, provides what is called “last-dollar” funding for students enrolled in any of the state’s 19 two-year colleges, who are taking at least six credits and whose families earn less than $45,000 a year. The funding covers any gap remaining between their tuition and fees and all other financial aid grants they receive.

In its 2020 budget approved last week, the state Legislature reduced Murphy’s proposed CCOG funding to $25 million but increased the income eligibility limit from $45,000 to $65,000. Murphy has until June 30 to sign the budget and has the ability to make line-item vetoes.

The Senate Democratic Office said its budget gives county colleges top priority by expanding eligibility for the free college program.

“At the request of New Jersey’s county college presidents, the Legislature has proposed raising the income threshold from $45,000 to $65,000, which will help middle-class students and working adults attend or return to college. We also included career and technical education that will empower them with job skills,” a statement from the Democrats reads.

Mark Magyar, policy and communications director for the Senate Democratic Office, said they believe the money in the Legislature’s budget will be sufficient to fund the program going forward. He said that, as of this month, much of the $20 million in this year’s CCOG pilot for tuition reimbursement was still unspent, although the deadline for reimbursements is July.

The Higher Education Student Assistance Authority said it was still reconciling figures to determine how much aid will be disbursed.

Local community college presidents said they stand behind the effectiveness of the CCOG program. At Cumberland County College, 94 students received CCOG funding totaling $91,817 in the spring.

“It is sad that the students who are most at risk of not attaining their associate degree will be negatively impacted without appropriate finances and support,” Cumberland County College interim President Shelly O. Schneider said. “The proposed funding cuts will definitely have a negative impact on the economy of this region and prevent some of our worthy students of having an equal opportunity to a needed education. I hope the legislators are able to keep ‘opportunity’ in the Community College Opportunity Grant.”

Atlantic Cape Community College President Barbara Gaba said the CCOG pilot program has benefited 304 of Atlantic Cape’s students, providing a total of $408,929 in funding.

“In many cases this award meant the difference in attending college or not. We support the continuation of CCOG in the state’s 2020 budget plan. Any additional dollars that can help a student attend college with less debt truly speaks to our desire to be a college accessible to our Atlantic and Cape May communities,” Gaba said.

The Senate Democrats said Murphy could have further helped community colleges with funding by approving a switch in health benefits that would have saved $22 million. Murphy vetoed that legislation in December.

“This was supported by the county colleges. If the governor is serious about providing more resources to our county colleges, he would have accepted these savings,” the Senate Democrats said.

During his news conference Wednesday, Murphy called out the Legislature for slashing his proposed tax on millionaires in the state and bending to the will of corporations and gun lobbyists in its 2020 budget instead of adding funding to CCOG.

“You are way more deserving than the 19,000 millionaires who the Legislature continues to protect,” he told the community college students and officials. “CCOG speaks to a New Jersey where everyone who wants to work hard can get a degree, get a job and be part of our economic renewal.”

The Murphy administration expects CCOG to support about 18,000 students a semester next year after federal and state grants are applied, with the average award at $1,588 per semester.

The average in-district annual tuition at New Jersey community colleges is $5,018, based on 2018 rates. The maximum federal Pell Grant for next year is $6,195.

Julio Cortez  

Murphy FILE — In this Jan. 29, 2019 file photo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks during a news conference with Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin in South Amboy. Murphy's Department of Treasury has put $4.6 million in funding for Stockton University, needed for its Phase 2 expansion, into limbo.  (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, file)