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Seth Wenig  

Philadelphia Eagles tight end Josh Perkins (81) celebrates scoring a touchdown in the first half of an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Kristian Gonyea / For The Press  

Atlantic City’s 29th polar plunge was held Wednesday in front of Resorts Casino Hotel. About 350 people were expected to participate in the New Year’s Day event.

Couple get engaged at Margate polar plunge

MARGATE — Dan DiOrio’s family has been participating in the Robert’s Place Polar Bear Plunge for 22 years, ever since his grandparents bought a shore house in Ventnor.

Each year, the family comes dressed in embroidered royal blue robes ready to run into the chilly Atlantic Ocean to start the new year.

But this year was a little different.

Five minutes before the plunge, DiOrio, 30, pulled his soon-to-be fiancee, Erika Dlugosz, 29, down by the water to take a photo. Then a relative tossed him a small velvet box.

Dlugosz looked confused before looking up at DiOrio. After telling her how much he loved her, DiOrio got down on one knee where the water met the sand and asked her to marry him.

“Now it’s all making sense,” Dlugosz said while wiping happy tears from her cheeks. “All of these random people are here with us that don’t normally come for the plunge.”

Even though Dlugosz has done the plunge in previous years, she’s never too happy about it.

“This is usually my worst day of the year,” she said. “I’m completely surprised. It’ll be worth it now.”

DiOrio said plunging into the water with his new fiancee, both of whom live in Philadelphia, was “a consummation of the engagement.”

“I give her the ring, and then we jump in the water,” he said.

The Margate plunge started more than 25 years ago with just 25 firefighters from Atlantic City racing into the water, said Christine Brewster, owner of Robert’s Place and organizer of the event.

Now, the New Year’s Day event — one of several in the region along with Atlantic City, Brigantine and Ocean City — brings out about 1,500 people.

“A lot of families come out,” she said. “Tons of kids.”

While Brewster has never done the plunge — she said it’s way too cold — her brother and kids braced the frigid waters.

“I’m not crazy,” she said. “Only the crazies do it.”

But even though she doesn’t dip her toe into the January Atlantic, the event brings her joy each year.

“Everybody is just so happy and so excited,” she said. “It’s like we don’t even worry about the night before, it’s all about today.”

Somers Point resident Fran Bates, 68, agreed. She’s plunged on New Year’s Day on and off since 2011.

“I think it’s just for the fun of it,” she said. “It’s just a little tradition and here you are and why not.”

She also had a bathing suit and monogrammed robe, printed with the years she’s participated in the plunge.

For 2020 and the next decade, she wants to continue to have “good health, a little prosperity and to keep all of our friends safe and healthy.”

And her favorite part of the plunge?

“When they say, ‘Let’s go!’ and watching all of these people just go in.”

PHOTOS from the 2020 Margate polar plunge

Star athletes Matt Szczur, Marvin Burroughs fathers to decade's first babies

Two former local athletic standouts and Villanova University quarterbacks — including one who just last month signed a minor league contract with the Philadelphia Phillies — had the first babies of the decade in Atlantic County hospitals.

Marvin Burroughs, 36, a star Atlantic City High School quarterback, and Hollisha Bridgers, 34, both teachers from Egg Harbor Township, welcomed daughter Marley Dion Burroughs at 12:58 a.m. Wednesday at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Galloway Township. Marley weighed in at 6 pounds, 13 ounces.

Meanwhile, in Somers Point, the first baby of the decade at Shore Medical Center was born to Phillies organization outfielder and Lower Cape May Regional High School alumnus Matt Szczur, 30, and wife Natalie, 31. They had a baby boy at 9:53 a.m. Matthew Jr. weighs in at 7 pounds, 6 ounces and 20 inches long, said his mom.

“I have met (Burroughs) a few times. He’s older than me, so I never played with him,” said Szczur, who has been invited to Phillies major league spring training in February. “That is wild — it’s pretty cool.”

It’s the Szczurs’ first child. Matt, who made his Major League Baseball debut with the Chicago Cubs in 2014, helped his wife through the delivery.

“He was my motivational coach,” Natalie said.

“I was just telling everybody, I respect the heck out of women, but after seeing that, it’s on a whole new level,” Matt said. “It was really unbelievable.”

Matt and Natalie live in Cape May, and both grew up in Cape May County, Matt said. Their parents were good friends, so they have known each other a long time. They started dating in college, when Matt was at Villanova and Natalie was at East Carolina University.

They thought the baby would be born Friday, when an induction was planned, Matt said.

“Last night we had dinner with family — pork loin, spinach and cheese. That must have gotten the baby going,” Matt said. “Then last night Natalie started having contractions.”

They got to Shore about 1:30 a.m.

“We were very lucky,” Natalie said. “It was really quick.”

Over at AtlantiCare, Marley was a few days late — her due date was Dec. 27 — but it was enough to push her birth date into the new year, and right into the 2020s.

“They made it a big deal, with whistles and bells and Happy New Year lights,” said Bridgers, a teacher at Dr. Joyanne D. Miller Elementary School in Egg Harbor Township. “It was exciting, and something we didn’t anticipate. We didn’t think (the birth) would be in January, but I really like the date of 1-1-20.”

Marley was born at the Roger B. Hansen Center for Childbirth at AtlantiCare’s Mainland Campus.

Dad Marvin Burroughs teaches at the New York Avenue School in Atlantic City. He said the two thought they were going in for a routine non-stress test at 9 a.m. Monday, but Bridgers’ blood pressure spiked at the hospital.

“They wanted to keep her and examine her a little further, and it turned out we were stuck here for New Year’s Eve,” Burroughs joked.

Bridgers went into labor about midnight Monday, so she was in labor a little longer than 24 hours. It was her first baby.

Burroughs had had a premonition, and on the way to the hospital grabbed the baby bag.

“She asked me why I was bringing that,” Burroughs said. “I said, ‘I just have a feeling.’”

The night before he had a dream they were having a baby girl, Burroughs said.

Burroughs has two older children, Marvin Jr., 10, and Macy, 7, who are both thrilled about the new baby, he said.

“We are both teachers so are on winter break,” Bridgers said. “We didn’t plan it. It just happened to be that way.”

She said she will be on maternity leave through spring break in April, and Burroughs will also have maternity leave to take after that.

“We didn’t know the gender until the baby came,” said Bridgers. “We had the grandparents announce it as soon as the baby came out.”

Burroughs said he knew the gender of his first two children, born by cesarean section. This was the first birth he could watch.

“It’s scary. There’s so much to worry about, and it’s difficult because you have no control over it,” Burroughs said. “That was the hardest part for me.”

He has some advice for other men anxious about childbirth.

“Embrace the moment. Deal with the emotions afterwards. It will be worth it,” Burroughs said.

“He was such a phenomenal support in the bath tub and on the yoga ball,” Bridgers said. She used a whirlpool tub to help with stress management during earlier labor, along with a yoga ball, a peanut ball, jazz and aromatherapy.

“Each helped in a different way. They were very soothing,” Bridgers said. “I put it in my birth plan to have all those things.”

The name Marley is a combination of their two first names, Bridgers said, and Dion is the name of Bridgers’ cousin who died about a year ago. They would have used both names for either a boy or a girl.

The couple will have a lot of help with the new baby, as they both have a large extended family in the area including grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

“There will be a lot of support and a lot of love surrounding Marley,” Bridgers said.

Staff Writer John Russo contributed to this report.

PHOTOS from Ocean City's First Night celebration

Atlantic City Council swears in new members, new leadership for 2020

ATLANTIC CITY — The new year brought new voices to City Council on Wednesday with the swearing-in of three elected officials and the selection of new leadership.

Muhammad “Anjum” Zia was sworn in as the 5th Ward councilman and Md Hossain Morshed took the oath of office to represent the city’s 4th Ward during the governing body’s annual reorganization meeting at City Hall. Zia defeated Democratic incumbent Chuen “Jimmy” Cheng in the June primary and bested Republican Sharon Zappia in the general election on the strength of mail-in ballots. Morshed beat out a crowded Democratic field in June’s primary after incumbent William Marsh declined to run for reelection and won the seat in November over Republican Sean Reardon.

At-large Councilman George Tibbitt was elected council president by a 5-3 vote. Tibbitt voted in favor of his nomination along with councilmen Moisse Delgado, Jeffree Fauntleroy II, Zia and Morshed, while Aaron Randolph, Kaleem Shabazz and Jesse Kurtz voted against. Delgado, also an at-large council member, was unanimously voted council vice president.

Through a series of procedural actions, LaToya Dunston was selected to serve as the 2nd Ward representative for 2020. Dunston, who served as the 2nd Ward councilwoman for two months in 2019, filled the vacancy left by Mayor Marty Small Sr.

Small became mayor in October after his predecessor, Frank Gilliam Jr., resigned following a guilty plea in federal court for wire fraud. The timing of the mayoral transition meant Small’s name remained on the November ballot, where he had no Republican challenger.

Prior to the reorganization meeting, the Atlantic City Democratic Committee nominated three candidates — Dunston, Deon Garland and Edward Stephens — to fill the vacant seat.

Once all council members were sworn in, the governing body moved on to routine business, including multiple actions designed to assist property tax payers. Council approved allowing the municipal tax collector to accept partial payments on quarterly bills and set the interest rate on delinquent taxes at 8% for the first $1,500 owed and 18% on any excess. Council also authorized notifying property owners via mail about tax liens and sales rather than publishing notices in the newspaper.

An attempt to authorize accelerated tax sales was rejected.

A temporary budget authorization was amended at the request of Kurtz, the body’s lone Republican, who suggested the city only approve three months’ worth of debt service payments rather than the entire year. Small said the move could potentially impact the city’s bond rating, which has improved slightly in the past two years. Over the mayor’s objection, council approved the amended measure.

Council will next meet at 5 p.m. Jan. 22.

PHOTOS from Atlantic City's 2020 polar plunge

Five Atlantic City casino stories to watch for in 2020

ATLANTIC CITY — Since the introduction of casinos in 1978, the gaming industry in Atlantic City has constantly evolved and responded to both internal and external market factors. And 2020 will be no different.

Although no longer the East Coast casino monopoly it once was, Atlantic City demonstrated its resiliency in the latter part of the past decade by reporting four consecutive years of total revenue growth. In 2019, the industry showed what it is capable of by eclipsing the $3 billion threshold in annual gaming revenue for the first time since 2012.

The gaming industry will be tested in 2020, with major regulatory rulings and potential market disrupters on the horizon, each with the ability to dull recent successes. Conversely, the yet-to-be-realized apex of sports betting and online gaming, combined with the ongoing diversification of the resort’s economy, inspires confidence in Atlantic City’s future.

Here are five storylines to watch in 2020.

1. Caesars/Eldorado merger

The multibillion-dollar merger of gaming giant Caesars Entertainment Corp. with lesser known Eldorado Resorts Inc. is expected to be finalized in 2020. Federal and state regulators still need to approve Eldorado’s $17.3 billion acquisition of Caesars, a merger that would result in the country’s largest gaming company with nearly 60 properties in 18 states.

In New Jersey, regulators will have to grapple with the question of whether the newly formed company would result in an undue economic concentration since it would control four of the nine operating Atlantic City casinos and hold deed restrictions on three other non-gambling hotels. In a joint petition submitted to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement last year, the gaming companies said an expert would be presenting evidence to suggest there would be no economic concentration.

Daniel Heneghan, an industry consultant and retired public information officer for the Casino Control Commission, said one area regulators will be looking at is operating efficiencies. Eldorado CEO Tom Reeg has already publicly stated the new gaming company — which will retain the Caesars name — is targeting nearly $500 million in “synergies” upon completion of the merger.

“Anytime you see mergers and consolidations within an industry, you get concerned about whether or not there will be contraction in terms of things like the number of employees,” Heneghan said. “It can be more profitable. And if it’s more profitable, how does that affect the people who work (there), the community in which (the company) operates and the overall industry itself?”

2. Sports betting + online gaming = $

The popularity of legalized sports betting and the continued growth of online gaming boosted the casino industry’s reported revenue last year. Combined, the two forms of gaming accounted for nearly 18% of the industry’s total through the first 11 months of 2019.

More than $4 billion was wagered on sports in New Jersey last year, generating more than $111 million in revenue and $13.7 million in taxes. Meanwhile, internet gaming revenues increased nearly 61% through the first 11 months of 2019 over the same period in 2018 and generated just shy of $433.4 million, according to state gaming regulators.

The interesting angle to watch in 2020 is the blossoming connection between the two. In its first full year of being regulated and legal in New Jersey, experts say sports betting helped grow internet gaming in 2019, particularly since more than 80% of all sports wagers in New Jersey were placed online. That trend is likely to continue.

“Six years in, and it’s clear that online casinos have been a win across the board in New Jersey,” said Eric Ramsey, online gaming analyst for PlayNJ. “Not only do online casinos continue to increase revenue at a breathtaking pace, they have built a symbiotic relationship with online sports betting. Online sportsbooks and casinos are helping to fuel each other’s growth.”

3. Regional competition

Atlantic City has shown itself to be vulnerable to regional competition. As gaming and tourism options continue to expand in nearby jurisdictions in 2020, Atlantic City, experts say, must be prepared.

“The uptick in revenue this past year from product diversification has helped to stabilize this fragile market temporarily,” said Bob Ambrose, an industry consultant and adjunct professor of casino management. “On the horizon for 2020, the economic-competitive pressures continue from an already oversaturated northeastern market.”

Ambrose pointed to Philadelphia, where the 2 million-square-foot LIVE! Hotel & Casino is expected to open in 2020, as just one example of how Atlantic City “will have another ‘notch’ carved into some of that coveted drive-in-market less than an hour away.”

Sports betting, which is legal in 20 states and Washington D.C., will also continue to expand, both at retail casinos and online. At least nine more states are expected to legalize sports betting in 2020, and a handful of others could do so the following year.

4. Diversification of industry

The push to diversify amenities and offerings for casino guests has been a focal point of the industry for several years because of the realization that gaming revenue alone cannot sustain the operations. Atlantic City has, slowly but surely, started to emulate Las Vegas, where nearly 70% of all revenue is generated from non-gaming amenities.

Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Stockton University, said continued diversification of Atlantic City is critical to the resort’s long-term stability.

In the third quarter of 2019, Pandit noted that 47% of revenue was generated through non-gaming offerings, up from 27% for all of 2017.

“I anticipate that number is going to continue to grow as Atlantic City books more meetings and conventions and other leisure market segments continue to expand,” he said. “The product is constantly being refreshed by operators, creating a buzz about Atlantic City. That is further strengthening our position as a destination resort and helps to differentiate us from other locations.”

Recently, some of the casinos have even begun to embrace entertainment, dining and retail options outside their own walls in an effort to showcase the city. Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, Resorts Casino Hotel and Ocean Casino Resort have partnered with select businesses near their area of the Boardwalk to form a collaborative promotional effort called North Beach Atlantic City.

5. Public/private partnerships

Atlantic City remains under state control as a result of the 2016 takeover. And while the casino industry’s host municipality has made strides toward improving its fiscal situation, much remains to be done to further entice economic development.

Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, said the ongoing presence of the state could be an opportunity for the city, and by extension the casino industry, to realize its full capability.

“Atlantic City’s potential, I equate to the horizon — it’s always out there, you never reach it, but it never goes away,” he said. “Hopefully, 2020 is going to be different than in previous years.”

Pollock said he envisions what he characterized as an “unprecedented public-private partnership” as a catalyst for realizing that potential. With the resources available from the state, such as tax incentives, combined with the will of private investors, Atlantic City can, once again, be the preeminent East Coast gaming destination, he said.

The Atlantic City Executive Council, a quasi-policy making body formed from a recommendation in the state’s transition report that includes both public and private stakeholders, has laid the groundwork. But, more could be done, Pollock said.

“You’ve got the mechanism, you’ve got the will and now you just need to identify the plans and put them into practice,” he said. “Atlantic City shouldn’t always be in a position where it hits bottom before it bounces back. Atlantic City should be ahead of the curve and use the gains it’s made from both internet gaming and sports betting to focus on getting a return on invested capital in the city itself.”

What are the top Atlantic City casino stories from 2019?