The last blackjack hand dealt before the Trump Plaza casino closed its doors in Atlantic City Tuesday morning was a 21, for the house.
That luck came too late for the casino, which shut for good just before 6 a.m.
The floor was mostly empty, the chandeliers lighting vacant gaming tables and workers clustered together. Only a handful of players were left, loyal customers and determined gamblers to the end.
Ruth Hardrick’s last shift had ended at 4 a.m. but she returned a few hours later for the final moments. For 26 years, the casino had been her second home, she said.
“You see it coming but you never think it’s going to get to this point because you always try to stay optimistic that it would come out of the slump somewhat,” said Hardrick, who lives nearby in Mays Landing, New Jersey. “I had a good run here.”
The two men playing blackjack left as security guards escorted people from the building at 5:59 a.m.
Ruth Modrell set her alarm for 4:30 a.m. to play the slot machines one last time.
“This is a great place,” said Modrell of Bridgewater, New Jersey. “I feel like I’m a favorite daughter in the family and so does everybody else. The people here are just wonderful. You can’t win but that’s true at all casinos.”
The retired communications engineer had been visiting Trump Plaza for about 10 years, and on this final night, she was trying her hand at one or two more slot machines before heading out.
With no drinks to serve, 30-year-old Marilyn Solis was gathering up empty ash trays as the minutes ticked down. This was her second casino closing, she said. She had worked at the Sands Casino Hotel before it shut in 2006.
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“I never thought it was going to happen again,” she said.
She has been filling out applications for another job, but was not optimistic.
“It’s been very hard,” she said. “You have to know somebody now to get in.”
At the front of the casino, 60-year-old Rich Everett complained that the owners had not even tried to make the casino successful. He hopes to work for himself instead by buying a limousine to take customers between the casinos, he said.
“They didn’t promote the place at all,” he said.
Soon after the doors closed, workers could be seen inside the lobby pulling up the fake plants.
The day before Linda Winsett stopped in to say goodbye to the workers she'd come to know over her decades playing the slot machines.
“I know everyone here,” said Winsett, who was visiting Monday with her husband, Jon, a retired Wildwood, New Jersey, police officer. “They’ve always been good to me. Sad. Everyone’s out of work.”
Winsett had known the casino was failing. It had become run-down, and there were fewer employees on the casino floor. Its imminent closure was no surprise to her. “I could see it coming,” she said.
When the Trump Plaza shuttered its doors early Tuesday morning, it became Atlantic City's fourth casino to close this year, following the Atlantic Club in January and Showboat and Revel over the Labor Day weekend. Trump Entertainment Resorts is threatening to shut down a fifth, Trump Taj Mahal, if it cannot cut costs there.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump hinted that he might jump back in the game.
I left Atlantic City years ago, good timing. Now I may buy back in, at much lower price, to save Plaza & Taj. They were run badly by funds! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2014
In August, Trump sued Trump Entertainment Resorts, formed after his casino empire emerged from a bankruptcy and in which he retains a stake. In the lawsuit, Trump demanded that his name be removed from the Trump Plaza and the Trump Taj Mahal casinos because the company had allowed them to fall into disrepair.
Still, the march of casino closures comes as New Jersey casinos' revenue lags, and as state leaders scramble to turn the tide. New Jersey casinos' August revenue was down $3.65 million compared with last year, state gambling figures out Friday show. Last week, Gov. Chris Christie held a special summit to help the troubled casino resort community, and issued a directive to let casinos begin sports betting.
“The whole industry is played out,” said Linda Winsett's husband Jon, 59, who does not gamble. “If you put six McDonald’s on one intersection, not all six are going to do good.”
"I'm going to pick up the pieces"
At mid-day Monday, a smattering of gamblers dotted the Trump Plaza's cavernous casino floor, most of them at the slots. As the day wore on, visitors streamed up the escalators to games whose dazzling names — "Dozens of Diamonds," "Invaders from the Planet Moolah" — belied the casino's future.
That future was on casino employees' minds Monday, as nearly 1,000 workers prepared to lose their jobs. Some said they said they would apply for unemployment benefits or maybe return to college, and a dealer was overheard discussing competition from casinos in neighboring states.
Theresa Volpe, 56, a cocktail server who has worked at Trump Plaza for 26 years, is looking for a job in one of the other casinos, and hopes the city can rebound to thrive again. She lives just outside Atlantic City in Northfield with her disabled sister and her mother, who is recovering from a fall. Both rely on her, but Volpe said she wasn't worried.
"I’m going to pick up the pieces," she said. "I’ll be good. We’ll work it out."
The closing of Trump Plaza has also left uncertain the future of its boardwalk restaurant, EVO. Waiter Elgun Alakbarov, 25, is applying for jobs at other restaurants, but he may leave Atlantic City instead.
"It’s time to do something different. But I'm young," he acknowledged. “People who have a family — it’s hard."
The union representing casino employees, Unite Here Local 54, will host a resource center in Boardwalk Hall from Wednesday through Friday where union and non-union workers can learn about unemployment benefits, health care, rent assistance and other resources, said Donna DeCaprio, the secretary treasurer. "It's kind of one-stop shopping," she said.
"There's already enough poverty"
On a sparklingly sunny Monday on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Janice and Malcolm Blalock had their photograph taken in front of the casinos. Retired government workers from Clayton, North Carolina, they were on a motorcycle trip and were on their way to Philadelphia.
“It’s a little bit sad,” Malcolm Blalock said of the casino closures. His wife, who described herself as a small gambler, said the casino closures reflect the ongoing struggles of a still-rebounding economy.
The pair was only briefly stopping in Atlantic City en route to Philadelphia.
Derek Ljongquist, 31, and Jennifer Cote, 33, stopped at the Starbucks in the Trump Plaza, but they had no plans to stay, either. The couple from Naugatuck, Connecticut – he a computer technician, she a health-care administrative assistant – was headed for a swim and then shopping at the Tanger outlet mall, during a visit for Cote’s birthday.
And though not gamblers, they thought the Atlantic City casinos paled in comparison with their home state's Mohegan Sun casino, though they called the Trump Plaza's closure "a shame."
“It's a shame, because there are a lot of jobs to be lost,” Cote said. “There’s already enough poverty in the city.”
"The whole vibe is different"
Like many others, longtime Trump Plaza patrons Ed Heron Jr., 68, and his wife, Marge, 67, had come to their old haunt Monday to say goodbye to longtime employees.
“This used to be our place,” Ed said. “We used to be here at least two or three times a month."
The retired couple, who live in Philadelphia, recalled steak dinners they had eaten and performances they'd seen by Cher and Diana Ross there. But what was once a fabulous casino now looked desolate, Marge said, and the couple blamed its owners for its failure.
“Ten years ago, the place was hopping,” Ed remembered.
That wasn't the case Monday, another worker at the Trump Plaza's restaurant EVO conceded. Andrea Gant, 29, is moving to Boca Raton, Florida, to waitress in another of the owner’s restaurants for the winter. "It’s hard to get a job here in the winter," she said.
It wasn't just during the winter that business had lagged, though, she said. With fewer patrons to serve, she could tell the casinos were suffering.
"You can feel it," she said. "The whole vibe is different."