A bit of Vegas moves east

With slots competition looming in Pennsylvania, Atlantic City adopts the Las Vegas model of adding upscale retailers to lure shoppers as well as gamblers.

February 22, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Avi Toledo walked past the gambling hall at Tropicana Hotel & Casino recently and headed straight for the new retail stores.

Instead of testing his luck on the slot machines or table games, Toledo, 48, is wagering on Atlantic City; he spent his entire visit trying to find a location on the Boardwalk for his upscale New York-based women's couture shop.

"I like what they did in the city with all the stores," Toledo said as he peered inside a Brooks Brothers men's store inside the Quarter, a new $285 million, Havana-themed nongambling expansion at the Tropicana.

A combination of new competition and changing consumer preferences has forced a sea change in the gambling industry, and Atlantic City is in the midst of a major transformation: It's becoming "Vegas East."

Like Las Vegas, Atlantic City has added luxury casino hotels, golf courses, high-end spas and upscale retailers and restaurants over the past 1 1/2 years, and it is marketing them as part of the casino experience.

There is a new urgency for Atlantic City. With Pennsylvania poised to add as many as 61,000 slot machines starting in 2007, gaming analysts predict that slot parlors there could siphon as much as 10 percent of Atlantic City's total annual revenue.

Last year, New Jersey casinos racked up $4.8 billion, with 74 percent coming from slots. So the city is reinventing itself to offer more than gambling. It wants to shed its image as a day-trip market.

"All of the new attractions will better position Atlantic City to compete in the future as neighboring states expand the kinds of gambling that they offer," said Linda Kassekert, chairwoman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, which regulates gaming in Atlantic City.

The opening of the $1.1 billion Borgata in July 2003 altered Atlantic City's landscape, much as the $650 million Mirage did in Vegas when it opened in 1989.

For Vegas, the Mirage was the first megacasino with luxurious hotel rooms, a crowd-pleasing volcanic display at its entrance and a large array of nongambling attractions under one roof.

Atlantic City is drawing a new type of customer, said Tim Wilmott, chief operating officer of Harrah's Entertainment Inc. Harrah's is poised to acquire Caesars Entertainment Inc. this year to become Atlantic City's largest casino operator, with four properties.

"It's attracting a new clientele -- younger, not as gaming-centric as Atlantic City has traditionally seen, and that's very encouraging," Wilmott said. "That's really the story for the past five or seven years in Las Vegas, so, hopefully, Atlantic City can catch up."

How far Atlantic City has to go is reflected in whom Vegas brings in.

Lara Colagrosa and Isabella Verdi, both from Rome, said they felt at home inside the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas recently.

"We don't gamble," Colagrosa said on a balmy afternoon in the resort long known for extravagance, as she and Verdi strolled past the Fountain of the Gods piazza. "We come here for the shopping and dining." As the two shopped, their husbands played blackjack at the Bellagio.

More than 2,000 miles away in Atlantic City, Marion Ferguson and her cousin Susan Hardiman were awed by the architectural ceiling patterns throughout the Quarter.

Despite frigid conditions outside on the Boardwalk, it was sunny and festive inside the Quarter. Its imitation palm trees, live Latin band and bright tropical colors evoke Old Havana in its 1950s, pre-communist resplendence.

The Forum Shops and the Quarter are strikingly similar. Both have large water fountains in center courtyards. Both feature a variety of restaurants and retail stores. Both look as if they are somewhere they are not.

"It's fantastic," Hardiman said, staring up at the skyscape in the Quarter and watching the projected clouds drift by.

Ferguson and Hardiman had something else in common with their compatriots in Las Vegas.

"The boys are in there, and we're shopping," Ferguson said, pointing to the floor where their husbands were playing craps and the slots.

Hardiman, 34, from Dublin, Ireland, said she last visited Atlantic City in July 2003, for the opening of the Borgata.

On her return trip, Hardiman said, she was astonished by the city's physical transformation.

In the heart of downtown, where there had been large vacant lots, stands an eight-block giant outlet mall called the Walk, with stores such as Bass, Liz Claiborne and Tommy Hilfiger.

Since the Mirage opened in 1989, Las Vegas has undergone a near-constant metamorphosis.

Long seen as Hollywood's playground or the place for a quick, no-frills wedding, Las Vegas began attracting more families and nongamblers after the Mirage opened.

The city's other casino owners took note and responded with bigger and pricier attractions.

"As the destination grew, we expanded our market," said Terry Jicinsky, head of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "First regionally, then nationally. And now worldwide."

Atlantic City is hoping a little bit of Las Vegas will go a long way toward shoring up its future.

The Showboat Hotel Casino said early last month that it would add a $65 million House of Blues restaurant and music hall, similar to the one at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

"One feeds off the other," said Jeffrey Chodorow, principal owner of Red Square, a Russian-themed restaurant that has operated at Mandalay Bay since 1999. A Red Square opened at the Quarter in December. "The more you put there," he said, "the more reason to go there."

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