LAS VEGAS — Sharks swim languidly in a 200,000-gallon aquarium overlooking a poolside bar called H20.

The world’s largest gold nugget — weighing a whopping 61 pounds and 11 ounces — is on display in the hotel lobby.

Movie star and comedian Steve Martin joins poker ace Phil Hellmuth for a star-studded charity poker tournament that has admirers clamoring for autographs.

Exotic sharks, the mother lode of gold and some Hollywood glamour create a buzz around the Golden Nugget casino hotel these days. This type of Las Vegas excitement is headed to Atlantic City as the owner of the Golden Nugget prepares to take over the Trump Marina.

Landry’s Inc., the Houston-based restaurant, gaming and entertainment conglomerate, announced last week that it plans to buy Trump Marina Hotel Casino for $38 million and then invest $150 million to resuscitate the aging property. The Trump name will come off, and the casino will be rebranded as a Golden Nugget.

Landry’s is going to use its $300 million renovation of the once tired-looking Golden Nugget as a guide for reviving Trump Marina.

“We can take this business model and apply it to Atlantic City to turn Trump Marina into a really special place,” said William Sylvestre, Golden Nugget’s chief financial officer.

Golden Nugget executives point to the Las Vegas casino’s transformation from a dowdy gaming hall to a modern resort as proof that they can back up their promises for Trump Marina.

Customers say the Golden Nugget’s new look is a draw away from the glitzy Las Vegas Strip megaresorts:

“We usually stay on the Strip, but I heard that a lot of people liked the Golden Nugget, so we thought we would come here to try it out,” said Debi Felten, of Rochester, Minn.

Felten’s husband, Jeff, said they were also attracted by a $52-per-night rate for their hotel room.

Another Golden Nugget hotel guest, Pat Ogle, of Bradenton, Fla., joked that she was mesmerized by all the glitter.

“The outside of the building caught my eye — the gold,” Ogle said while playing a $1 slot machine. “I’ve gambled here before, but I never stayed overnight. I was impressed, so now I wanted to stay.”

New carpet, new ceiling

The 2,345-room Golden Nugget is the biggest casino in the downtown area, a grittier section of Las Vegas than the signature Strip. Only a few years ago, this iconic gambling hall was looking a bit shopworn — usually a death sentence in a town known for imploding old casinos to make way for the posh new resorts.

Texas restaurant and entertainment mogul Tilman J. Fertitta, the chairman of Landry’s, stepped in as Golden Nugget’s new owner in 2005. He bought the casino for about $300 million and invested another $300 million to give the property a facelift and a second life.

“He took over the Golden Nugget when it was dying and really changed the place around,” said Jim Wortman, a former Atlantic City casino executive who now serves as director of gaming and research at the University of Houston. “It’s kind of like an everyman’s gambling place without being cheap or tawdry. It’s an older hotel that doesn’t look like an older hotel.”

Golden Nugget executives declined to disclose the privately owned casino’s gaming revenue figures or gross operating profits, but Chief Operating Officer Brett Kellerman said the Golden Nugget was among the few Las Vegas casinos that posted higher revenues and operating profits from 2009 to 2010.

With Fertitta overseeing the project, the company embarked on three phases of renovation and expansion to re-energize what had become an outdated casino.

“From a transformation standpoint, there’s virtually nothing in the casino that hasn’t been touched,” Sylvestre said.

“Everything has been redone, from the carpets to the ceiling,” added Jim Friesen, senior vice president of hotel operations.

Landry’s overhauled the casino floor, buying up seedy pawnshops next door to create new space for an expansion. New restaurants, bars and lounges were added. A special events center totaling 11,000 square feet was built.

The centerpiece of the renovations — the a $150 million, 500-room Rush Tower — was completed in late 2009, and Landry’s is making similar plans to build a hotel tower at Trump Marina.

Two new aquariums were installed, making Landry’s the country’s second-largest aquarium operator behind SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, Kellerman noted.

A 75,000-gallon tank stocked with fish from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef fronts the Chart House restaurant in the Rush Tower lobby.

Overlooking the H2O poolside bar is the 200,000-gallon aquarium that is home to full-grown sharks and other large fish. The gigantic aquarium includes a water slide that propels guests through the middle of the tank. The slide is enclosed, so no one has to worry about becoming the sharks’ dinner.

Although Landry’s will not be building a shark aquarium at Trump Marina, the company does have plans for some upscale pools and hot tubs for humans. A lavish spa is also in the works.

“We’ve got our plans set and we’re going to start right away,” Kellerman said. “It’s going to be a super-nice property.”

The same Landry’s-owned restaurants at Golden Nugget will open at Trump Marina. They include the Chart House, Vic and Anthony’s Steakhouse, Red Sushi, Lillie’s Asian Cuisine and Grotto Italian Ristorante. Joining the restaurants will be new bars and a nightclub.

Kellerman said upgrades will begin immediately after Landry’s takes charge of Trump Marina and should be completed by year’s end. The casino sale is expected to close in the second quarter of this year, pending regulatory approval by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.

Kellerman said new employees will be needed to staff the casino restaurants. Landry’s plans to expand the Trump Marina work force, an encouraging sign in an industry that has suffered thousands of job cuts in recent years. The company will soon begin placing ads.

“It’s great news for Trump Marina employees, and I believe it’s also great news for the entire city,” said Robert McDevitt, president of Local 54 of UNITE-HERE, Atlantic City’s largest casino union.

Landry’s productive relationship with the Las Vegas labor unions was a crucial part of the Golden Nugget’s resurgence, McDevitt said.

“They have done a tremendous job of revitalizing that casino in a down market,” he said. “We’re glad they’re coming to town.”

The weakest link

Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. is getting rid of Trump Marina as part of its post-bankruptcy restructuring plans under the new ownership of corporate bondholders aligned with Donald Trump. The company will now focus on Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort and Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino.

Trump Marina is the weakest of the three Trump-branded casinos. It pulled in $147.4 million in gaming revenue in 2010, down 9 percent from 2009. Through the first three quarters of 2010 it lost $3.4 million. Operating profits for the fourth quarter will be released in April.

This will be the second time Atlantic City will have a Golden Nugget casino. Las Vegas gaming tycoon Steve Wynn opened Atlantic City’s original Golden Nugget in 1980. He also once owned the Las Vegas Golden Nugget.

Wynn sold the Atlantic City Golden Nugget in 1987, beginning a succession of name changes and ownership switches. The property is now known as the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort. Lenders tried to force the Hilton into foreclosure after it defaulted on its mortgage in 2009 but have called a truce with current owner Colony Capital LLC while attempts are made to sell it.

The Golden Nugget name is still treasured in Atlantic City. Golden Nugget was the city’s first luxury casino and featured Vegas-style cool under Wynn’s ownership.

One gaming analyst cautioned that a name change alone will not be enough to revive Trump Marina, which finished dead last in 2010 gaming revenue among Atlantic City’s 11 casino hotels.

“A name really doesn’t mean anything,” said Cory H. Morowitz, chairman of Morowitz Gaming Advisors LLC. “It’s really what goes behind the name. What are the activities that go into it to make it a special experience for the customer?

“It’s not Steve Wynn,” Morowitz added. “It’s going to be a completely different product. That’s not to say that it’s going to be bad.”

Contact Donald Wittkowski:



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