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Matthew Strabuk / For The Press/  

Sergey Kovalev and Eleider Alvarez pose during their weigh-in Friday on the Boardwalk in front of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. Backers see their Saturday fight for the World Boxing Organization light-heavyweight belt as part of the sport’s Atlantic City comeback.

Atlantic City casinos needs to adopt 'Las Vegas model' to survive

Nearly three decades ago, the largest and most lucrative gaming jurisdiction in the United States collectively shifted its focus from gambling profits to revenue generated elsewhere in casino hotels.

But, while resorts on the Las Vegas Strip ensured their long-term viability by creating a sustainable model under which the majority of their revenue came from hotel rooms, food and beverage sales, unique experiences, concerts, shows and retail, the country’s second-largest gaming market stood by and watched, seemingly content with its East Coast casino monopoly.

Now, many experts and industry officials believe Atlantic City needs to emulate the successful model from Las Vegas to not only thrive but survive the continued encroachment of nearby gaming jurisdictions.

“Since the inception of casino gaming in Atlantic City, the revenue mix for the city’s operations have weighed heavily on the side of gaming revenue,” said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University. “While this gaming-centric revenue model was successful for decades, when Atlantic City was ‘the only game in town,’ recent increases in regional competition for gaming dollars have challenged this approach. In high-density markets like Las Vegas, Nevada, casino properties have distinguished themselves from competitors and created sustainable revenue through embracing an integrated resort or ‘nongaming revenue model.’”

Beginning in 1989, casino properties in Vegas started focusing on convention and expo business, which drew the coveted midweek, multiday hotel guest. That year, gaming revenue accounted for just under 59 percent for all the Vegas Strip casino properties, according to data collected by the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Ten years later, gaming revenue accounted for 48 percent. In 2009, less than 39 percent of revenue was from gaming, and last year the figure was 34 percent across the Strip’s 24 properties.

“In order to succeed, more Atlantic City properties need to invest in nongaming amenities that will give visitors reasons besides gambling for visiting,” said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV. “This will build the critical mass that is needed for visitors to plan multiday trips, rather than just daytrips.”

Steve Norton, an industry consultant who worked as a casino executive in both Atlantic City and Las Vegas, was at the Las Vegas Sands in 1990 when the industry focus shifted to nongaming. He said that once Vegas fully embraced the idea of becoming a convention and expo destination, the city supplanted Chicago as the No. 1 location in the country, a distinction it has held nearly every year since.

Norton said that while he was an executive in Atlantic City and was simultaneously serving as chairman of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, he “tried like hell” to get casino operators in the resort to go after convention business.

“The properties said they didn’t need it” at the time, said Norton.

Schwartz said that while some Atlantic City properties made incremental changes toward more nongaming revenue “it hasn’t been adopted universally as it was in Las Vegas.”

“The failure of Revel (Casino Hotel after only two years of operation) — which was a property that would have fit right in on the Las Vegas Strip — made it that much more difficult to argue that nongaming could be the core of an Atlantic City casino,” he said.

But in recent years, the Atlantic City casino industry has begun making changes to diversify and expand its nongaming offerings.

Kevin Ortzman, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and regional president of Caesars Entertainment Corp.’s three Atlantic City properties, said comparisons to Vegas are “much less appropriate” than they appear. Ease of access, the customer base, length of stay and the number of hotel rooms were just a few areas where Sin City and the World’s Playground differed, he said. The Atlantic City casino industry has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years toward nongaming amenities, Ortzman said, pointing to projects such as Harrah’s Waterfront Conference Center, Borgata’s Festival Park and Tropicana’s expansion of The Quarter, as well as the millions invested in noncasino projects throughout the city.

“Atlantic City has greatly increased its nongaming amenities in response to a changing market,” said Ortzman. “In fact, for over a decade, the Atlantic City casino industry has worked to solidify the seaside resort’s comeback by diversifying Atlantic City’s offerings, as well as investing hundreds of millions of dollars in redevelopment projects and nongaming services to attract new visitors. During that period, the casino industry has been and continues to be focused on transforming Atlantic City from a predominantly gaming location to a diverse beachfront destination, where gambling is just one of the many activities bringing visitors to this great city each day.”

In 2000, gaming revenue accounted for nearly 82 percent at the resort’s 12 casino properties. In 2017, the average gaming revenue generated by Atlantic City’s seven casinos was 73 percent before promotional deductions. Through September of this year, with nine casinos operational for nearly six months, the average gaming versus nongaming revenue generation was 57 percent versus 43 percent, according to data from the Levenson Institute.

“This shift, especially considering continued increases in gaming revenue itself, is evidence that the industry’s investment in nongaming offerings is being well received by visitors to the city and therefore will likely continue into the future,” said Ortzman.

The city’s two newest properties, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Resort Casino, have already set a precedent for how they will operate in the market. The two casinos, which both opened June 27, average 45 percent of their revenue from casino gaming and 55 percent from nongaming. Pandit said the difference in the revenue share was “indicative of the properties’ individual revenue models and target audiences.”

Thousands of polar plungers charge into ocean in A.C., Brigantine

Divers who ran into the chilly Atlantic Ocean on Tuesday didn’t need much recovery time this year as a warm New Year’s Day had people celebrating outdoors.

Even though the water held a chill at 45 degrees, air temperatures in the low 60s brought out more crowds to polar plunges in Atlantic City, Brigantine, Margate and Ocean City, a stark contrast to last year’s freezing conditions that caused several event cancellations and postponements.

“The weather was unbelievable, the ocean was big and it wasn’t outrageously cold,” said new Brigantine Mayor Andy Simpson. “People actually turned around and went back in.”

PHOTOS from the Brigantine Polar Bear Plunge

More than 1,000 people participated in the 19th annual polar bear plunge and costume contest at the 16th Street beach in Brigantine. About 3,000 participated in Ocean City’s plunge near the Music Pier, according to officials in that town.

Brigantine’s plunge, which has 180 local sponsors, has raised more than $600,000 over the years for Fisher House, an organization that provides comfort homes for families of military veterans receiving medical care.

Costumes were a big part of Tuesday’s plunges. In Ocean City, there were plenty of Santa hats and superhero costumes in the crowd, along with a lot of Eagles green. In Brigantine, families dressed as memorable board games such as Monopoly and Operation held their handmade costumes together as strong winds blew through the crowd.

The Amalfitano family, of Brigantine, dressed up as symbols of their hometown, such as a red fox, a giant greenhead fly, a tourist and even lifeguards who handed out paper beach tags.

“It’s just a great tradition for the island to have, and to be able to do it for the veterans is a great way to bring it together,” Vaughn Amalfitano said.

SEEN at 2019 Atlantic City Polar Bear Plunge

Longtime Atlantic City Polar Bear Plunge organizers Patricia and Mike Kahlenburg, creators of the Atlantic City Polar Bear Club, passed the baton this year to new organizers Equity Communications and WZXL-FM 100.7 for the city’s 28th annual plunge.

The event draws hundreds of plungers from the tri-state area and beyond while raising money for various organizations. This year’s fundraising beneficiary was the Atlantic City Boys & Girls Club.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Mike Kahlenburg, of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, who attended with his wife, Pat. “It was time to pass it on, and now it has some young blood.”

Shannon Wray Norris, director of marketing and promotions for Equity Communications, said her company was happy to take over and continue the tradition. This year, organizers added a bonfire on the beach to help warm up plungers and observers.

“It’s a great event to bring everyone together. It’s also tourism-driven as people come from out of town and stay overnight to be here for this,” she said.

PHOTOS from the 2019 Atlantic City polar bear plunge

Maryann McElroy, director of development at the Boys & Girls Club, said the event could not come at a better time. Donated money will go toward the organization’s new teen center for college readiness and career development programs. They hope to open the center by the spring, she said.

Jody Wink, 50, of Palm, Pennsylvania, was among the several hundred people who ran into the water in front of LandShark Bar and Grill at Resorts Casino Hotel. Her aunt used to work at the former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.

“It really wasn’t that cold. It was awesome,” she said.

Father and son Jon and Eric Lehtonen, 60 and 31, respectively, joined in on the annual event having never done a polar plunge before. They just recently moved to Atlantic City.

“I always used to hear about them and people doing it,” Jon Lehtonen said. “When we moved down here, I said we’ve got to do it.”

Bill Barlow contributed to this report.

PHOTOS from the Ocean City polar plunge

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Executive director paints new picture for Miss New Jersey

It’s been a tradition for artist David Holtzman since 2013 to paint every Miss New Jersey’s shining crown and smiling face against a red-white-and-blue backdrop.

In fact, he said these pop-art style portraits — which started with a rendering of friend Cara McCollum — are what first drew the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation to offer him a position as a board member.

Now that Holtzman has been named the group’s executive director, he has the power to design its future.

“I’m going to take it up a couple notches,” he said.

Holtzman was appointed last week after the Miss America Organization agreed to reinstate the state organization’s license for a year. Miss New Jersey was one of three state organizations whose licenses were revoked last month after breaking from the central organization’s new vision.

Previous Miss NJ Executive Director Sally Johnston could not be reached for comment.

Holtzman, who has been a board member since it was formed in 2015, plans to make changes to the local competition to bring it in line with the larger Miss America Organization’s new direction, such as eliminating the swimsuit competition, a decision Holtzman was struck by at first but now fully supports.

“It’s more about empowering the women,” Holtzman said. “The person inside and out: character, mentality, presence, all that is all important about how attractive they are, if not more,” he said.

He also said he wants to make the board more regionally and ethnically diverse.

“It is a state organization, but it’s been a little heavy on South Jersey,” said Holtzman, who lives in Ventnor and owns art galleries in Atlantic City and Margate.

He hopes to remedy this by appointing board members from northern and central New Jersey to establish an 8-12 person organization this week. He hopes this will lead to more varied perspectives as the group moves forward.

“I want more diversity on the board and also contestant-wise,” Holtzman said. “It’s nothing you can change overnight, but if the opportunities are there, I will jump on them because that’s the real world.”

Officials from New Jersey, New York and Florida last year signed a vote of no confidence relating to the Miss America 2.0 rebranding. Volunteers with the organization have said there has been a lack of transparency over the MAO’s decision making, including the elimination of the swimsuit competition and other changes to the pageant structure.

The MAO deemed the state organizations in breach of contract, saying they were subject to either a review of licensing during a probationary period or immediate termination of contract.

Miss New Jersey’s license was reinstated following an appeals process.

“It’s gotta be one happy family,” Holtzman said. “It should be no negatives or black eyes on anything or anybody. The longer the negative media is out there, the worse it is for everyone.”

Holtzman supports the new national leadership. He believes the Miss America Competition didn’t grow with the times and that efforts such as Miss America 2.0 should have started 10 or 15 years ago.

“It’s a lot of hard work on their end. It takes a lot of nerve to do what they’re doing, and it’s what they need to do,” he said.

Brenda Keith, the MAO board member who chaired the appeal process, said last week she appreciated the Miss New Jersey program’s participation in the appeal and review process.

“We feel confident the plans laid out by Mr. Holtzman’s team will work to make New Jersey an even stronger participant in the MAO system,” Keith said.

Holtzman said he holds no bad feelings about the appeal process. Instead, he sees it as an opportunity for necessary restructuring.

GALLERY: Miss America 2019 photos

“It’s funny how in life bad things happen to trigger amazing things,” he said. “We have the opportunity to move forward.”

Automatic voter registration at MVC counts on honesty from noncitizens

The state depends on the public’s honesty when it automatically registers to vote anyone applying for a driver’s license or non-driver identification card through the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.

“Prospective New Jersey voters must verify that they are U.S. citizens and eligible to vote prior to NJ MVC transmitting their voter registration to the Division of Elections,” said Department of State spokeswoman Trudi Gilfillian in an emailed response to questions.

That is also the case when someone registers by any other method, said Elizabeth Matto, associate research professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

But it is backed up with an identification requirement.

Voter registration forms require people to either provide their full driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number, said Matto.

If people cannot provide either number, they must supply identification when they show up to vote the first time, Matto said.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law in April requiring automatic registration be available by Nov. 1, and the MVC had the new system up and running on time.

While undocumented people cannot get licenses or ID cards under current law — there are bills pending in the Legislature that would allow them to get special licenses — those who are documented with a legal right to be here can get them. Citizenship is not required.

People have been able to register to vote when applying for driver’s licenses since the early 1990s, when New Jersey law changed in response to federal law.

Until November, however, people had to opt in to register, said Gilfillian.

“The only thing that changed was automatically getting registered unless you opt out. The transmission of data from MVC to counties was unchanged,” Gilfillian said.

Gilfillian said providing false information to the MVC to register to vote is punishable under the law.

“Any false or fraudulent information may subject those convicted to a fine of up to $15,000 or imprisonment up to five years, or both,” she said. “Individuals must acknowledge on the signature pad that they have received this warning.”

She said signatures and voter registration information are sent to the counties daily from the MVC via the Statewide Voter Registration System.

“The process is automated. Each county sees new voter registrations from MVC when they log into SVRS,” Gilfillian said.

To find out if you are registered to vote, search the Department of State’s NJ Voter Information Page.