New Jersey's plan to breathe new life into the struggling Atlantic City casino market may be paying off.
Three companies say they're interested in building one of the two new, smaller casinos in Atlantic City that state lawmakers authorized earlier this year.
A group including the Seminole Indians of Florida, through their Hard Rock franchise; Las Vegas-based Pinnacle Entertainment, which scrapped plans to build a $2 billion Boardwalk casino, and a group of Atlantic City-area business people told New Jersey casino regulators Friday they want to participate in a pilot program to jump-start the nation's second-largest gambling market.
New Jersey amended its law earlier this year to provide for a casino with as few as 200 rooms, and one that would eventually be 500 rooms. The idea was to lower the entry bar to the struggling market and spur new investment.
Friday was the date set by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission for expressions of interest in building one of the new casinos.
"We're happy that the governor and state legislature's plan to reinvent Atlantic City is bearing fruit," said Bob Griffin, CEO of Trump Entertainment Resorts and president of the Casino Association of New Jersey. "This shows there's still room in this market."
The applicants are AC Gateway LLC, the group that includes Hard Rock; Pinnacle Entertainment through a subsidiary called ACE Gaming LLC; and a group of local investors calling itself California Avenue Ventures, based in Northfield, just outside of Atlantic City.
State Sen. James Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor who wrote the law authorizing the smaller casinos, said the California Avenue group includes Max Gurwicz Enterprises, an Atlantic County real estate company, and Howard Goldberg, who owns land on California Avenue near the Tropicana Casino and Resort. Messages left with both men's' offices were not returned Friday afternoon.
The Hard Rock group has submitted plans to the state Department of Environmental Protection to build a $275 million project in phases, ending with 850 hotel rooms. The casino-hotel would be built on the Boardwalk at the south end of town on land that is now parking lots at the foot of the Black Horse Pike, known locally as Albany Avenue.
Pinnacle owns land on the Boardwalk that once housed the Sands Casino Hotel. Spokeswoman Kerry Andersen said the filing is a way for the company to preserve its option to eventually build something on the site. Pinnacle had previously planned to build a $2 billion beach-house-themed casino on the land, but scrapped that plan and put the land up for sale when the economy foundered.
"This is an expression of interest; that's all it is at this time," Andersen said Friday afternoon. "It's just saying we're keeping our options open to proceed with a boutique license."
She said the company has not yet committed itself to building one of the two new casinos in Atlantic City, pointedly adding, `As of today, that land is still considered an asset for sale."
The third group, California Avenue Ventures, issued a brief statement saying it "has actively been involved with formulating a plan to develop a project on its site in Atlantic City. This is an ongoing process and we are making this filing as mandated under the application process to secure our position to obtain a boutique casino license."
Whelan said it is too soon to consider amending the law to provide for three new casino licenses instead of the two new ones created by the boutique casinos plan.
"We're a long way from that," he said. "An expression of interest is just that. We'll have to wait and see how things play out."
Previously, New Jersey law required at least 500 rooms. The most successful of the city's 11 casinos have 2,000 rooms or more.
The program is designed as a lower-cost way for new companies to enter the market and bring fresh ideas _ and investment _ to a market that has been reeling from fierce competition in neighboring states and the continued poor economy.
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, called the expressions of interest "another positive sign that Governor Christie's efforts to revitalize the city are beginning to take hold. There's much more work to do, but our successes over the last year are setting the foundation for economic growth and progress."
Christie's Atlantic City rescue plan includes the boutique casinos plan, a state-run tourism and entertainment district overseeing safety and cleanliness in the casino zone, and renewed investment in Atlantic City.
Upon being accepted later this year into the pilot program to build the new smaller casinos, an applicant has 120 days to pay $1 million to the state treasury that would be forfeited if the project is not completed by established deadlines. That payment will be used to make infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood surrounding the project.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC