ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – For years in this seaside gambling resort, Donald Trump’s name and face seemed to be everywhere — in neon letters across the facades of three casinos, on billboards, and in ads on the side of shuttle buses.
But the man who is now the Republican presidential nominee has been mostly gone from Atlantic City since 2009, when a well-publicized decline was starting its third year. And early Monday, the last vestige of Donald J. Trump will vanish from Atlantic City when the new owner of the Trump Taj Mahal casino shuts it down.
“Atlantic City was a great period for me,” Trump told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “Those were good years, before you had all the competition and all the problems. I had a 10-year stint that was unbelievable.”
Trump’s business record in Atlantic City was mixed. His casinos took in tons of money. But they were so thoroughly laden with debt that it led to four bankruptcies under his watch, and one more after he was gone.
He grew somewhat wistful while discussing the impending demise of the last of his onetime casino empire. Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor and Trump friend who owns the casino, and Atlantic City’s main casino workers’ union were unable to reach a deal to restore union workers’ health insurance and pension benefits that were terminated in its most recent bankruptcy. The casino will shut down at 6 a.m. Monday.
“I’m very sad that they weren’t able to reach a deal,” Trump said. “It’s very sad to me. I felt they should have been able to make a deal.”
Though he hasn’t owned the casino in years, having lost control to bond holders in a previous bankruptcy, Trump said he will demand that the Taj Mahal remove his name from its facade once it closes. He sued to force the Trump Plaza casino to remove his name after it closed two years ago, arguing that it hurt his personal brand to have his name on a closed, run-down structure.
(His Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, held a rally in July outside the shuttered Trump Plaza, with dirt and grime still spelling out the name “TRUMP” where red neon letters once glowed.)
De-Trumpification has already begun at the Taj. A sign above the main front entrance that for decades proclaimed “Donald J. Trump Presents Taj Mahal” has already been removed.
Bryant Simon, a Temple University professor who wrote the book “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America,” said Trump was a perfect fit for a growing second-tier city that aspired to the big time.
“You can learn everything you need to know about Donald Trump from his time in Atlantic City,” he said. “The first thing was the seduction — people drawn to his money and his celebrity, the over-the-top nature of his projects. He took helicopters in and out of town, and he lent his celebrity to the town.”
But Simon said Trump’s “thin skin and prickliness led him to pick a fight with Merv Griffin,” the TV host and entrepreneur, as both men battled for control of Resorts, the company that built New Jersey’s first casino in 1978 and was building what would become the Taj Mahal. It ended with Griffin getting control of Resorts and Trump getting the unfinished Taj Mahal project.
Simon called that clash “the beginning of the end” for Trump’s Atlantic City aspirations in “what can only be described as a bad business deal.”
“He built a building that from the start could not sustain itself,” Simon said. “While the Taj generated plenty of cash, it was in trouble from the start. He couldn’t service its debt. Despite what he says, he wasn’t that great of a businessman.”
Steve Norton, a former Resorts vice-president, said the debt was almost unavoidable because most banks at the time believed gambling was under mob control and were reluctant to lend. So they used junk bonds at high interest rates, he said, and Trump had to do the same.
Trump boasts that he made lots of money in Atlantic City. But his heavy reliance on debt and what he calls OPM — “other people’s money” — left his casino empire weakened. That happened to other companies’ casinos, too, but overall gambling revenue in Atlantic City rose during the years Trump’s casinos went through bankruptcy in the early 1990s and in 2004, beginning its slump only in 2007.
In Republican primary debates, Trump said he used the bankruptcy laws to his advantage, saying it proves he is a shrewd businessman.
In her Atlantic City campaign stop in July, Clinton ripped Trump as a “shameful” businessman who contributed to the resort town’s decline and would be just as disastrous for America’s workers as president. She then met with striking Taj Mahal workers on the picket line a few blocks away.
Trump responded that he “created thousands of jobs and made a lot of money in Atlantic City, which was what, as a businessman, I am supposed to do for my company and my family.”
Many workers look back fondly to Trump’s management of the casinos, saying he was a fair boss who never gave the union a hard time.
But many small contractors who did work for him say they had to fight tooth and nail in court to get what was owed to them — and several got far less . Trump dismisses those complaints by saying he was dissatisfied with the quality of their work and was under no obligation to pay in full.
Creditors, including investors in his casino companies, also got left with little after bankruptcies. In the 2009 bankruptcy, filed a day after Trump resigned as chairman of Trump Entertainment Resorts, unsecured creditors got less than a penny on the dollar of what they were owed.
Trump had little sympathy, calling hedge fund managers and lenders who lost money in his companies’ chapter 11 cases “total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people you think.”
New Jersey state Sen. James Whelan, a Democrat, was mayor of Atlantic City while Trump was here. Whelan praised Trump’s ability to create a buzz but said his dealings with small vendors and investors are a troubling indicator of how a President Trump might function.
“You think there’s something subtle here that you’re missing?” he said. “What you see is what you get with him.”
Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC
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