Can lavish resorts truly transform Atlantic City?

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For years, there has been talk of an Atlantic City reinvention, an attempt to rid the southern New Jersey city by the sea of its reputation as a haven for day-trippers by emulating the panache of Las Vegas 3,000 miles to west. Build more elaborate and diversified resorts that will attract the kind of clientele that will make the city cool. And in time, the Atlantic City boardwalk would rival the Las Vegas Strip.

The 2003 opening of the Borgata, co-owned by Boyd Gaming and MGM Mirage, started the transformation, and it is hoped that the MGM Grand Atlantic City will continue it.

MGM Mirage expects to start construction on this mini-metropolis next year and open the resort in 2010. Spread over 60 acres, the $5 billion resort will have three towers with more than 3,000 rooms, making it the city's largest casino hotel. It will have New Jersey's largest casino floor, with 5,000 slot machines, 200 table games and a poker room.

The resort also will have 500,000 square feet of retail space, a 1,500-seat theater, restaurants, nightclubs, a spa and a convention center.

But is it too ambitious a plan? Gaming revenue in Atlantic City has slumped for the first time in three decades. Casinos in other Northeast states are siphoning gamblers. The political climate remains sticky; casinos shut down for three days last year because of a budget impasse, draining millions from state coffers. Some wonder whether Atlantic City can remake itself in Las Vegas' image, or if it should even try.

Bill Coyle, president of Encompass the World Travel, a travel agency in Cleveland, said no one should expect an overnight makeover. Even with $10 billion worth of deluxe resorts on tap in the next five years, Coyle doubts Atlantic City will lure luxury travelers who frequent Vegas. For starters, he said, Atlantic City's airport is too small.

"Building re-sorts is great, but the infrastructure around the boardwalk isn't where it needs to be," said Coyle. "We have clients who stay in Vegas for six nights and never even gamble. Once you've gambled in Atlantic City, then what?

"[Travel agents] are the ones who are going to sell this, so [we need to see] that there is something more than sitting in a casino all day. Maybe it's too early for the project, or everyone's hoping that the things that need to happen will happen in the interim."

David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, sees the glass half full. Reared in Atlantic City, he's familiar with its battles with blight and repeated attempts at rejuvenation.

"Borgata proved the market is there, that people are willing to pay more for quality," he said. "It has to happen; the city has to innovate. It can't be Laughlin East or Primm East. It has to be Las Vegas East."

MGM Mirage spokesman Gordon Absher disagrees. He thinks Atlantic City is its own marketable brand. "Atlantic City can stand on its own," he said.

Absher said the Borgata's rising revenue proves Atlantic City customers are receptive to a world-class, destination experience and that the MGM Grand Atlantic City is the right project at the right time.

In a note to investors, Bear Stearns gaming analyst Joe Greff expressed confidence in MGM Mirage's ability to execute in an underserved market.

"We have long believed Atlantic City is a market in need of hotel rooms and capital investment to assist in the transformation to a destination resort or less of a day-tripper market," Greff said. "We believe this development should be a positive for the neighboring Borgata."

Absher said MGM Mirage intends to apply for state approval to build along the coast in late 2007 or early 2008. The other main order of business is securing approval from New Jersey gaming regulators, who are currently reviewing MGM Mirage's Macau joint venture with Pansy Ho, daughter of casino mogul and alleged organized crime affiliate Stanley Ho.

Nevada and Mississippi have green-lighted the partnership. If New Jersey regulators disapprove, MGM Mirage could be forced to shelve the Macau project or dump its Atlantic City properties.

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