Trump Plaza

Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, Atlantic City’s poorest performing property, is being sold to a California development group for just $20 million.

The buyer, the Meruelo Group, plans to rename and revitalize Trump Plaza, but said Thursday that it is not yet ready to announce the cost or scope of its redevelopment project.

“Suffice to say, we are firmly committed to the property and we are firmly committed to the city. We are excited about making a mark and an investment in the property,” said Xavier Gutierrez, Meruelo’s president and chief investment officer.

The sale is expected to close May 31. If the deal goes through, Meruelo will take over a property that finished dead last in 2012 in gambling revenue among Atlantic City’s dozen casinos, grossing just $102.5 million. Trump Plaza’s gambling revenue plunged 25 percent overall for the year, including 46 percent at the table games.

Alex Meruelo, founder and chief executive officer of the Meruelo Group, issued a statement suggesting that he is undeterred by the challenges of reviving the aging casino.

“Trump Plaza is one of the world’s most recognized gaming resort destinations and is an integral part of the Atlantic City landscape,” he said. “Our company is thrilled to have the opportunity to become the new owners of this property, and we are firmly committed towards establishing it as one of the elite destinations in Atlantic City and on the East Coast.”

The Meruelo Group, of Downey, Calif., is a diversified holding and investment company. It has holdings in banking and financial services, restaurants, hotel-casinos, construction and engineering, real estate and private equity. It owns the Grand Sierra Resort casino in Reno, Nev.

Alex Meruelo, a Cuban-American, began his career in his father’s tuxedo business, according to his online biography. In 1985, he opened the first of what became his La Pizza Loca pizza chain in Southern California. He expanded his business when he founded the Meruelo Group. In 2011, he acquired KWHY-TV, a Spanish-language television station based in Los Angeles.

Meruelo’s purchase of Trump Plaza would continue a series of Atlantic City casino sales in recent years at heavily discounted prices. It would be the cheapest price ever paid for an Atlantic City casino, reflecting a market mired in a six-year revenue slump.

Other bargain deals include Resorts Casino Hotel’s $31.5 million sale in 2010 and the $38 million purchase price for the former Trump Marina Hotel Casino in 2011. The Atlantic Club Casino Hotel is in the midst of being sold to the parent company of online global gambling giant PokerStars for an undisclosed price.

“Today’s announcement shows that investors continue to have a strong interest in Atlantic City,” said Matthew Levinson, chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. “It comes almost two years to the day from when the Meruelo Group announced its first investment in the casino industry, when it agreed to purchase what is now the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno. We look forward to considering their license application here.”

The sale is pending New Jersey regulatory approval. Parent company Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc. said another condition of the sale is the release of Trump Plaza’s mortgage held by billionaire investor Carl Icahn. In 2010, Icahn was unsuccessful in attempts to buy the Trump casinos when they were in bankruptcy. He remains Trump Entertainment’s senior lender.

Trump Entertainment said it plans to use proceeds from Trump Plaza’s sale to pay down its debt, which will be about $270 million after the deal is done.

With Meruelo taking over Trump Plaza, the sale means that Donald Trump’s name will be wiped off another Atlantic City casino. Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta bought Trump Marina Hotel Casino in 2011 and rebranded it as the Golden Nugget Atlantic City. Gutierrez confirmed that Trump Plaza will be rebranded, but said the new name has not been decided yet.

Donald Trump said he holds fond memories of all his years in Atlantic City, but added he would have no regrets in seeing Trump Plaza switch to a new owner and his name removed.

“It’s all changing times,” Trump said in an interview with The Press of Atlantic City.

Once synonymous with the Atlantic City casino scene, Trump was rendered a minority owner of Trump Entertainment following the $225 million bankruptcy deal in 2010 that put bondholders led by New York hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry in charge of the company.

Trump was given a small stake in the restructured company in return for the continued use of his name on the casinos. He has not had a hand in the operation of the Trump casinos in recent years, a point he emphasized Thursday.

“Atlantic City was great for me. I was there in its heyday,” Trump said. “But we’re not involved now.”

Other Trump-owned landmarks have been sold off in the past two years, including the iconic Steel Pier on the Boardwalk, the company’s corporate office building in downtown Atlantic City and a large offshore warehouse facility.

Trump Plaza’s sale will leave Trump Entertainment with just one casino, the flagship Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. Trump Entertainment has tried selling Trump Plaza for nearly two years.

“The sale of Trump Plaza to the Meruelo Group is wonderful news for the property and for Atlantic City,” said Robert Griffin, chief executive officer of Trump Entertainment. “This transaction shows that there is continued interest to invest in Atlantic City.”

In buying the Plaza, the Meruelo Group will own a property whose strength is its location in the heart of the casino district, at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway entrance. Next door is Boardwalk Hall, the city’s main sports and concerts venue. Having Boardwalk Hall as a neighbor gives Trump Plaza the opportunity to attract sports fans and concertgoers after the shows.

“It’s a wonderful location,” Trump said. “I hope the buyer does well.”

Opened in May 1984, Trump Plaza cost $210 million to build. These days, it is stuck with outdated architecture and awaits a major facelift. Not much has happened since the casino floor was remodeled in 2006. Its brass-and-glass decor once symbolized New York-style cool, but now looks like a time portal to the 1980s.

The casino has not undergone a major expansion since 1996. The 500-room Trump World’s Fair Casino was integrated into the property then, but the World’s Fair became a financial flop and was closed in October 1999, then demolished.

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