No single figure has been more associated with Atlantic City casinos than Donald Trump, now the Republican presidential frontrunner. WNYC took a trip down to Atlantic City to find out more about his history there, and his legacy. Our guide was Reuben Kramer, who covers the casino industry for The Press of Atlantic City.
Reuben Kramer begins each day by checking court filings online for Trump Taj Mahal, which is bankrupt. Its employees have lost health coverage. Technically, the casino’s namesake, Donald Trump, no longer owns the place.
“But you can’t talk about what’s going on in Atlantic City and you can’t talk about what’s going on at Trump Entertainment Resorts without talking about the history and context,” he said. “And that history and context at the center of it is Donald Trump.”
The union for about 1,000 Trump Taj Mahal employees has sued to fight the elimination of health coverage and pension benefits as billionaire investor Carl Icahn takes the property out of bankruptcy. But on this day, there is no news on the legal docket. And so we take a ride to the casino strip of Atlantic City.
Shortly after legal casinos first opened here in 1978, Trump, the son of a real estate developer from Queens, started buying property in the center of town, at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway, from private homeowners and investment groups. Those parcels formed what would become his first Atlnatic City casino, the Trump Plaza, which opened in 1984. Things got off to a shaky start, but the casino was breaking revenue records by 1988.
“Just like gamblers go through those peaks and valleys, Donald Trump as a businessman went through those peaks and valleys in Atlantic City,” Kramer says.
Trump proved adept at winning over regulators and gamblers, and he seemed to outwit competitors and the banks. He eventually opened the Trump Castle and finally the jewel in his golden crown, the Trump Taj Mahal.
“The attention that he generated for this resort — through his bombast, by being brash, by being outspoken, by being at times unbridled — benefited the resort in a lot of ways because we are, and probably will continue to be, enamored with Donald Trump,” Kramer says.
Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous covered the 1990 opening of the $1.2 billion Trump Tajal Mahal, then the biggest and most expensive casino in the world. Pop sensation Michael Jackson — and 70,000 other people — showed up on opening day.
Leach narrated: “At the historic meeting of show biz and big biz, music’s magic man and the midas mogul ran the media gauntlet to open the world’s glitziest casino.”
Trump told the cameras: “To have Michael at the Taj Mahal, he’s my friend and he’s a tremendous talent. And it’s really my honor. It’s a big day for me.”
Yet within a year of its opening the Taj filed for bankruptcy. Trump had over-leveraged. He had too much debt at interest rates he couldn’t afford — a theme that would follow Trump through his years in Atlantic City.
Trump’s downfall mirrored the city’s collapse. “I have to be honest with you,” says Kramer, “when we talk about myopic deal-making and not looking ahead to the future and not being a sustainable long-term business, he’s not the only one guilty of it.”
And bankruptcy wasn’t uncommon in Atlantic City, either. But Kramer notes: “The difference with Donald Trump is the regularity for which the casinos filed for bankruptcy.”
There would be three more bankruptcies of Trump properties. And today, he has virtually no financial stake left in the city. At the presidential debate earlier this month, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked Trump about the last bankruptcy in 2009.
“In that case alone, lenders to your company lost over $1 billion and more than 1,100 people were laid off. Is that the way that you’d run the country?” Wallace asked.
“Let me just tell you about the lenders,” Trump said. “First of all, these lenders aren’t babies. These are total killers. These are not the nice, sweet little people that you think, OK?”
But Kramer says it wasn’t just the banks that lost out.
“In the bankruptcies, also small time investors, individual bondholders who might have invested in the Trump casinos through their retirement accounts, or vendors who might have been purveyors supplying produce or supplying restaurant supplies, or doing labor or contracting for the properties, also got stiffed,” Kramer says.
Kramer shows us the shuttered Trump Plaza, which will likely be torn down. It is one of four casinos that closed in 2014, representing a third of Atlantic City’s gaming halls. Trump’s name has been removed from the Trump Plaza facade. Only the gaudy golden crest, a color reminiscent of Trump’s famous hair, remains.
Karen Gotto from Allentown, Pa., passes by the locked boardwalk entrance to the Trump Plaza and says she doesn’t blame Trump for leaving Atlantic City for business reasons.
“He gets credit for bringing life into Atlantic City,” she says. “Really, who else do you think of? You think of Trump.”
Kramer agrees. Trump brought attention to Atlantic City — attracting concerts and boxing matches and Wrestlemania. At one point Trump was one of the biggest employers in South Jersey.
Today all that remains of his brand is the Trump Taj Mahal, where what Kramer calls the “Trump totalitarian personality cult” remains. His name and his picture are everywhere at the casino, inside and out.
“If you define success as building a sustainable long-term business that benefits you and others I think he failed abjectly,” Kramer said. “If you define success as being scrappy and doing everything you can do to remain personally solvent and live to make money another day? Well Donald Trump may have been very successful in Atlantic City from that viewpoint.”
In New York, New Jersey, and well beyond, Donald Trump is perhaps best known for his brand. It’s emblazoned across buildings, casinos, golf courses. So, in a sentence, how would you describe that brand? Leave your comment below.[audio:http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/audio.wnyc.org/news/news20150826_cms524693_pod.mp3]