Since it changed hands in May, signs at the Golden Nugget Atlantic City have urged customers to "watch the transformation" from the former Trump Marina Hotel Casino into something newer and shinier.
New Jersey casino regulators have been watching, too, and on Wednesday they liked what they saw, granting the casino a permanent license. The Casino Control Commission approved the new license in a 3-0 vote, praising efforts by new owners Landry's Inc. to breathe new life into what for years has been a struggling casino.
"It's just a different place now," owner Tilman Fertitta said in a telephone interview from his Texas headquarters. "We're extremely excited to get finished and become a big part of the marina district and helping make Atlantic City a true resort destination. People are really going to like the bars and the restaurants. It's going to be as nice as anything you'll see in Las Vegas."
Houston-based Landry's Inc. bought the casino for $38 million _ about a tenth of what former owners Trump Entertainment Resorts nearly got for it just two years earlier. But that sale fell through, and Atlantic City casino values collapsed as the economy headed south.
Landry's invested $150 million in renovations that included rebranding and covering the exterior in gold paint. It has opened new restaurants, lounges and a poker room, and offered free weekday parking to customers with player's club cards. The company also owns Golden Nuggets in Las Vegas and Laughlin, Nev.
The renovation is about 80 percent done and should be finished by the first week in April, Fertitta said.
Richard Liem, Landry's chief financial officer, said the facility has shed its former institutional image.
"They have changed the appearance of the building, so the hospital is gone and the casino is there," he said. "From an old, tired, ignored property, it's totally refurbished. It's stunning."
James Fogarty, a deputy attorney general with the state Division of Gaming Enforcement, said the reinvestment is welcome, along with the casino's clean balance sheet.
"It's expected those renovations will pay off handsomely," he said. "The Golden Nugget is as close to debt-free as one could reasonably expect. And when is the last time we heard something like that?"
The casino has a $10 million revolving loan, but otherwise relies on the deep pockets of Fertitta, whose company recently acquired the McCormick & Schmick's and Morton's steakhouse chains.
The Golden Nugget has been among the worst-performing in Atlantic City in recent years but was one of only two to post a revenue increase in January. The $9.6 million it won from gamblers was up 3.4 percent from January 2011.
For all of 2011, during which ownership was split between Trump Entertainment and Landry's, the casino won $125.1 million from gamblers, down 15.1 percent from 2010, and the lowest total out of Atlantic City's 11 casinos. The opening in April of Revel, which will be the city's 12th casino, is sure to put additional pressure on the revenues of all the other casinos. It averaged about $343,000 a day in revenue, also worst in the city.
Its motto quickly became "Out with the old, in with the Gold." With its aging brick exterior and uninspiring institutional design, Trump Marina had long been derided as looking like a hospital since shortly after it opened in 1985 as Trump's Castle. First to go were the giant "Trump Marina" signs bolted to the sides of the building. The weathered brick was painted gold, and golden banners were unfurled at the main entrance.
Pulsating logo signs were added to the front and sides of the building.
A big part of the new Golden Nugget's renovation included adding new restaurants including the Chart House (one of several around the country that the parent company owns), and Vic & Anthony's steakhouse.
The rebranding returns the Golden Nugget name to Atlantic City, although in a different building unrelated to the original Golden Nugget. That casino operated from 1980 to 1987 in what is now ACH, the former Atlantic City Hilton, which is itself changing its name next month to The Atlantic Club.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC.