With unemployment in Atlantic City finishing last year above 20 percent, there are questions if the proposed sale of the worst-performing casino could add to the woe.
Last month a deal was announced that would sell Trump Plaza to California-based development company, the Meruelo Group, for $20 million -- the lowest total ever paid for an Atlantic City casino.
The casino might be the poster child for A.C.’s greater problems. The low price tag is likely due to the Plaza’s outdated look and diminishing gaming revenues.
It also shines light on bigger problems in the Jersey Shore town. Unemployment in city is among the worst in the nation, standing at 20.8 percent to end 2012, according to the most recent New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development statistics.
Will this sale ensure that at least the Plaza workers won’t add to the unemployment blow?
Officials don't seem overly concerned with recent Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) notices issued for 1,434 Plaza employees effective May 10.
“It’s standard procedure,” said C. Robert McDevitt, president of UNITE HERE Local 54 that represents roughly 700 Plaza hotel and hospitality workers. “Whenever there is a sale like this they have to... If the sale falls through, and then the place ends up getting closed, then they are obligated to pay those workers for 60 days.”
New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development confirmed that the WARN notices must be issued in any case of a sale of a large employer. And, Meruelo Group president and chief investment officer Xavier Gutierrez told NBC10.com by phone Monday that the WARN notices were part of the purchase procedure.
That doesn’t mean every employee will be off the job in two months.
“We have successorship language in our contract so when the new employer buys Trump Plaza they in effect buy our contract along with it and the employees that are already there,” union spokesman McDevitt told NBC10.com.
Trump Entertainment Group issued no letter to its employees regarding the WARN notices or on employment status, spokesman Brian Cahill told NBC10.com.
Gutierrez said that he couldn’t, at this point, comment on if current Plaza employees would all be retained. He did, however, point to his company’s pro-union stance at the Grand Sierra Resort & Casino in Reno. “We know the union folks well and they know us well,” Gutierrez said.
Meruelo said his company is currently focused on getting through the regulatory process with hopes of opening by mid-May, Gutierrez said.
The state’s Division of Gaming Enforcement will have up to 90 days to approve the Meruelo Group’s application seeking interim casino authorization. As of Monday the Division said that it had yet to receive the application from Meruelo.
Whenever the sale goes through, it will mark the official beginning of an uphill battle for Meruelo as they look to turn around the Plaza.
Gaming revenues around A.C. dropped 12.5 percent in February of this year from the same month last year. The Plaza took the biggest hit, as they raked in 41.8 percent less last month ($5,218,463) than the previous February and saw table game revenues drop 58.1 percent to just less than $832,000.
The Plaza continued to spiral downward as gaming expanded further in nearby Pennsylvania and Delaware. It’s the smallest resort in Atlantic City and with its 1980s-style Boardwalk décor it’s seen as increasingly outdated in a saturated gambling market.
Gutierrez acknowledges the challenges but thinks there is opportunity to create a resort destination.
“If you believe in Atlantic City as a market you’ve got to believe in the Trump Plaza,” Gutierrez said.
Though the low price tag definitely enticed Meruelo, Gutierrez said that its proximity to the Walk shopping area and Boardwalk Hall allows them unique opportunities. It also doesn’t hurt that the casino sits at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway and smack in the middle of the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk.
“No oceanfront destinations on the Eastern Seaboard are like Atlantic City.”
For this summer Gutierrez said some improvements should be expected and a name change is likely but that there will be bigger changes to come including changing the theme of the resort. Gutierrez said part of their plan includes using world renowned casino architecture firm Steelman Partners LLP to redesign the property and that they are considering the first Asian-themed casino in Atlantic City.
The revamping could mean new jobs.
“We do anticipate there being employment opportunities,” he said.
And those new opportunities are welcomed by the hotel workers union.
“I think the employees are excited about having a new future where there is going to be much-needed money infused into the property. It’s been very unstable there for the last couple years.
“You get a new employer and at least you get stability.”
Calls by NBC10.com to the United Auto Workers union, which represents dealers at the casino, weren’t returned.
Every group, so far, seems to be on board with the changes. The local division of the National Labor Relations Board said that there have been no complaints against any aspects of the ownership transition.
The question remains if the gamble on the Plaza and other recently sold or to-be-sold under-performing casinos like the Atlantic Club, Trump Marina and Resorts will pay off for Atlantic City. Even just evening off revenue would be considered an economic win.