ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Carl Icahn has done battle with corporate boards, company executives and rival investors, yet some of the most intense flak he has ever received is coming from casino workers and college students who see him as the hand holding back the struggling seaside gambling resort of Atlantic City.
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The legendary activist investor is taking over Trump Entertainment Resorts, and with it, the struggling Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort. But even before the deal closes, it has brought numerous headaches as well as five rounds of public protests over the company's elimination of health insurance and pensions for workers.
Two more rounds are on the way Thursday and Friday, this time from college students upset over Trump Entertainment's move to block the former Showboat Casino Hotel — its next-door neighbor — from being converted into a college campus for Stockton University. The proposed re-use of a shuttered casino represented one of the only bits of good news Atlantic City has had in the last year or so, during which four of its 12 casinos, including the still-profitable Showboat, were shut down.
Trump Entertainment says it does not want a college campus next door to the Taj Mahal, fearing students under the legal age of 21 will sneak in to gamble and drink, exposing the casino to costly fines. But many students see a different reason behind the company's refusal to let the deal go through.
"I want Carl Icahn to know what he's doing is wrong," said Shannon Herbst, a senior studying forensic psychiatry. "He has all the money in the world. He thinks this is a game, and it's not. It's my education, and my future."
University president Herman Saatkamp emerged from a meeting with school trustees on Wednesday night and said the future for converting the Showboat into a campus was "looking positive." But Saatkamp would not elaborate when pressed for details.
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Icahn, who also owns Atlantic City's Tropicana Casino and Resort, has been locked in a battle with the main casino workers' union over benefit cuts and work rule changes at the bankrupt Taj Mahal. Though he does not yet own it, he has been lending it money to keep it open.
He said this week he is not involved in Trump Entertainment's decisions. Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union derided that assertion, calling Icahn "the puppet master" behind Trump Entertainment.
"Local 54 is proud to stand with the students of Stockton against Carl Icahn, who seems to relish the role of school bully," union president Bob McDevitt said.
Icahn said the union is falsely portraying him as the source of the Taj Mahal's problems, and in turn blames the union for scaring away potential buyers for former casinos.
"Many people I know won't invest in Atlantic City because of the costs imposed by dealing with this union," he said. 'Between the work rules, the health care and the pension fund, everyone knows this union cares more about making a good deal for itself than for its workers or the companies."
At issue is a 1988 legal covenant among the Taj Mahal, Showboat and Resorts casinos, requiring that the Showboat never be used to anything other than "a first-class casino resort." Caesars Entertainment closed the Showboat on Aug. 31, and Stockton bought it in December, announcing plans to convert it into a long-sought Atlantic City satellite campus.
Trump Entertainment says Stockton knew of the covenant when it bought the building in December. Stockton's president acknowledged there was a covenant, but said the university was "led to believe" the matter had been resolved between Trump Entertainment and Caesars.
It was not.
Stockton officials said last month that if the impasse cannot be resolved soon, they will move to quickly sell the property because they cannot afford to keep an empty building.
Stockton students plan to picket outside the Taj Mahal along with former Showboat workers who had hoped to get jobs once Stockton reopened the facility and created an open-to-the-public hotel there.
"I've never had someone try to stop me from pursuing an education," said sophomore Kendal Lambert, who is studying communications."For a billionaire to say no to this is totally unacceptable."
"I feel robbed," added Brian Moore, a freshman studying hospitality and tourism management, who hoped to attend specialized classes in the former casino. "The program was going to have unique labs that were going to teach us real-life skills that you can't learn in a classroom. There were going to be mock dining rooms, wine tasting rooms, and we're being blocked by big business."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC