Hard Rock

ATLANTIC CITY - Hard Rock International, one of the best known brands in gaming and entertainment, has submitted its long-awaited plans for what would be the first of two smaller-scale casino hotels allowed in Atlantic City under a new state law.

Newly filed documents with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection show the $275 million project would be built in phases, eventually topping out at 850 hotel rooms, far more than the 200-room minimum required by the law.

Details are contained in Hard Rock's application with the DEP for a Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit, a key prerequisite for building projects at the New Jersey shore. The casino is proposed at the southern end of the Boardwalk, at the foot of the Route 40 entryway.

Hard Rock, owned by the Florida-based Seminole Indian tribe, is the first company to propose one of the two smaller Boardwalk casinos allowed under a law signed by Gov. Chris Christie in January.

Previously, New Jersey law required at least 500 hotel rooms for casino construction. One of the new, smaller casinos could have as few as 200 rooms, while the other could start at that size but would be required to expand up to 500 rooms within five years. Hard Rock has indicated all along that it is interested in building at least 500 rooms, said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.

"My understanding is that they are looking to initially bring in a project under 500 rooms and eventually get above 500 rooms," said Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor and chief sponsor of the legislation allowing smaller casinos.

Whelan and Mayor Lorenzo Langford welcomed the Hard Rock project, but both cautioned that the application for a state environmental permit does not guarantee that the casino will actually be built.

"This is a procedural step," Langford said. "Now, it's just wait and see."

Hard Rock representatives in New Jersey and Florida did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Whelan estimated it will be months before construction would begin, adding that "we're a long way from the finish line." He has been pushing the Hard Rock project to create jobs and help reinvigorate the Atlantic City casino market, now mired in a 41/2-year revenue slump.

"What I've been saying all along is if we bring exciting new product to Atlantic City, we can succeed in this market," Whelan said. "But I think you have to be careful in designating one or two projects as a savior. We have a tendency to look at things as the next best thing to solve all of our problems for all times."

Last week, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission approved the formal process for developers to apply for a license to build the two smaller casinos. The commission's guidelines set an Aug. 19 deadline for applications. In addition, the commission wants would-be developers to file a "notice of interest" by July 8 expressing their desire to build the casinos.

Whelan noted that Hard Rock is the only company so far to move ahead at a serious level. He added, however, that other companies may come forward now that Hard Rock is clearly in the running.

"If they realize that Hard Rock is for real and there is only one more license remaining, then they will say, ‘We've got to get going here,'" Whelan said.

Hard Rock International's portfolio of music-themed venues includes 134 cafes and 15 casino hotels in 50 countries, making it a globally recognized brand. In addition to its two flagship Seminole Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla., the company owns the world's biggest collection of rock music memorabilia, which is displayed at its locations around the world.

Although Hard Rock is on track to be the first of the two smaller-scale casinos, it won't be the next Atlantic City gaming project to open. Revel Entertainment Group is scheduled to open its $2.4 billion Boardwalk megaresort May 15, 2012.

Revel's casino, which will feature 1,100 guest rooms, a 150,000-square-foot gaming floor and an array of upscale restaurants, nightclubs, pools and other nongaming attractions, is a throwback to the old building requirements for Atlantic City casinos.

Hard Rock's casino, while smaller than the older generation of gaming halls, still requires the same Coastal Area Facility Review Act permit from the DEP for oceanfront construction. DEP spokesman Larry Hajna could not say how long it would take for the agency to complete its review and decide on the permit.

"We'll be very thorough, but at the same time we're giving this project a high priority," Hajna said.

Hard Rock has a partnership with the New York-based investment group Och-Ziff Real Estate to finance the project. Hard Rock's site is the same property where the ill-fated Dunes Casino was proposed years ago. The Dunes went bust and was torn down after it was partially built at Albany Avenue and the Boardwalk.

More recently, the old Dunes site was supposed to be used for the proposed $1.5 billion to $2 billion Atlantic Beach Resort & Casino by the AC Gateway LLC development group. AC Gateway, headed by Atlantic City and Cape May hotel owner Curtis Bashaw, scrapped the project during the recession. Bashaw is part of the Hard Rock casino project but in a smaller role than his involvement with the former Atlantic Beach development.

Staff writer Emily Previti contributed to this report.

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