Pickets, bankruptcies as summer profit season arrives for Atlantic City casinos

The crucial summer season will start with three Atlantic City casinos in bankruptcy, and one beset by regular pickets and protests.

And things won't be much easier for former casinos, either. Revel is struggling to reopen, and the Showboat is mired in a legal battle over whether it can be converted into a college campus.

Union members plan to picket Thursday evening outside the Trump Taj Mahal. It will be their seventh protest against the casino or soon-to-be-owner Carl Icahn over health insurance and pension benefits canceled by a bankruptcy judge last fall.

"This is just kicking off the fighting season," said Bob McDevitt, president of Local 54 of the Unite-HERE casino workers union. "We are going to stir the pot, big-time."

Icahn, the billionaire investor who also owns Atlantic City's Tropicana Casino and Resort, is in the process of acquiring the Taj Mahal through bankruptcy court. He has provided money to keep the struggling casino afloat, but insists the benefit cuts and work rule changes that current owner Trump Entertainment Resorts imposed are essential to the casino's long-term survival. Icahn did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday, but in the past he has said he will cut off funding and close the casino if the union wins a court appeal to get the benefits reinstated.

His resolve is matched by that of Patty Einchock, a cocktail server who has worked at the Taj Mahal since the day it opened in 1990.

"We're not quitting," she said. "I'm going to stay and fight until we get our benefits back; I'm angry that everything I've worked for has been taken away."

The Taj Mahal union dispute is just one of the highly visible battles roiling this seaside gambling resort. Revel, the $2.4 billion casino resort that closed Sept. 2 after little more than two years of operation, is struggling to reopen under new ownership.

Florida developer Glenn Straub bought it from bankruptcy court for $82 million last month, but has been locked in a literal power struggle with its sole supplier of utilities over how much future service to the building should cost, and whether he should have to help pay off debt from the construction of the utility's privately-owned power plant.

That has prevented Straub from meeting his goal of having at least part of Revel — which would open under a new, yet-unspecified name — up and running for the start of summer. He recently said it's possible nothing will be ready to open this summer; even his application for a casino license is still not complete.

And sandwiched between the Taj Mahal and Revel is the former Showboat casino, which Caesars Entertainment shut down Aug. 31 in the name of reducing competition in the Atlantic City gambling market — even though it was still profitable.

Stockton University bought the building in December for $18 million, planning to convert it into a satellite campus (its main campus is just west of Atlantic City in the suburbs). But Trump Entertainment Resorts is enforcing a 1988 legal covenant among three casinos in the area stating that the Showboat could never be used as anything other than a casino hotel.

Stockton's outgoing president, Herman Saatkamp, has said the university was led to believe the mater had been resolved, but Stockton has not said who made that representation, or when it was made. Saatkamp stepped down on immediate medical leave last month, and its new acting president, Harvey Kesselman, is trying to get out of the deal, which he called "a mistake." The university has an option to sell the Showboat to Straub for $26 million in a deal that can be canceled by July 3.

Taj Mahal, Bally's and Caesars are all working their way through bankruptcy court.

In the meantime, Taj Mahal workers start the summer in a gloomy mood.

"Everybody's tired, everybody's angry, everybody's depressed," said Einchock. "But everybody is still fighting."


Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC