A conventions and meetings market worth an estimated $16 billion is there for the taking in the Northeast. But Atlantic City currently grabs less than 1 percent of it.
Harrah's Resort thinks Atlantic City should get more -- a lot more.
How will that be done?
The answer is being built at Harrah's on a dusty construction site overlooking the marshlands. Gigantic crane-like machines are pounding metal piles into the ground to form the foundation for a nearly $126 million conference center billed as the largest of its type in the Northeast.
"In 2015, Atlantic City will welcome the largest conference facility from Baltimore to Boston. It's a game changer," Harrah's exclaims in promotional material trumpeting the project.
Construction is expected to take about 22 or 23 months. When finished, the facility will spread out over 250,000 square feet. Harrah's says 125,000 square feet will be reserved for meeting space. The center also will feature two ballrooms, each offering 50,000 square feet of space.
Rick Mazer, Harrah's regional president and general manager, tells The Press of Atlantic City the conference center will position Atlantic City to capture a much bigger share of the corporate meetings market. Harrah's estimates the city gets only about 1 percent of the Northeast's conventions and meetings market right now.
"It's phenomenal how much there is of that," Mazer said of the amount of business that could come Atlantic City's way once the new conference center is built. "There is the national business, but also the regional market as well. It could all have to do with what has been missing here."
Mazer, during a tour of the construction site Monday, noted the facility is designed to complement the conventions and trade shows at the larger Atlantic City Convention Center. Although Harrah's will host the conference center, he believes the project will serve as a business magnet for the entire city.
"it's truly important to both Harrah's and the rest of the market," he said. "I think it's all part of approaching business in a new, unique way. We can't continue to do the same things in the same old way."
Mazer sounded a similar theme during a Sept. 24 speech to the Atlantic City Hotel & Lodging Association. It represented his first public remarks in Atlantic City since taking over as Harrah's new chief executive last month. He urged the casinos to put aside their old rivalries to collectively revitalize the city's economy.
Public funding from the casino industry is a crucial part of the conference center project. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a state agency that uses Atlantic City casino revenue for housing projects and economic development, is contributing $45 million for the center. Caesars Entertainment, parent company of Harrah's Resort, plans to supply more than $80 million of equity to complete the financing.
Another state agency, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, has approved $24.1 million in state tax breaks for the conference facility over 20 years. That money will come from the same state program that provided the Revel Casino-Hotel with $261.4 million in state tax credits over 20 years.
Mazer characterized the Harrah's conference center as the type of project that will benefit the entire casino industry. Harrah's officials expect the center to increase demand for hotel rooms across the city, while also boosting business for restaurants, nightclubs and retail shops.
"It's not just the conventioneers, but also the spouses and significant others who will take advantage of Atlantic City's shopping, spas, restaurants or whatever," Harrah's spokeswoman Katie Dougherty said.
Atlantic City usually suffers most during the traditionally slower, midweek periods. Mazer said the types of corporate meetings that will occupy the conference center will stimulate midweek business.
"These are historically weekday customers here for three or four nights. This is a whole different customer," he said.
Harrah's already has started showing meeting planners the construction site. Mazer said the casino has gotten some preliminary bookings, but is not yet ready to make any announcements.
In the meantime, the project is giving a boost to the local building industry, creating 340 construction jobs to this point, Dougherty said. T.N. Ward Co., of Atlantic City, is serving as the general contractor.
The conference center will rise on a 3-acre site in the shadow of Harrah's 960-room Waterfront Tower. Harrah's is calling the facility the Waterfront Conference Center to link it to the hotel tower.
The noisy work of driving the 1,200 piles that will support the building's foundation continues until December. Hotel guests near the construction site are given the option to move to other rooms.
Cranes, big earthmovers, trucks and other construction equipment are crawling all over the site. Later, crews will begin building the superstructure that will reveal the conference center's design.