U.S.

Donald Trump and the Rise and Fall of Atlantic City

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10/30/15
In the Magazine
Letters are removed from the Trump Plaza Casino signage in Atlantic City, New Jersey on October 24, 2014. The Taj Mahal was slated to close on November 13 but said it would stay open for an unspecified period after winning benefit cuts in court; state and local governments have balked at offering tax concessions. Mark Makela/Reuters

In this city built on lucky streaks and last chances, Donald Trump is gone but not forgotten. He remains a totemic presence high above the Atlantic City boardwalk even though he no longer owns the hotels bearing his name, having lost the last one six years ago. Between the onion domes of the Taj Mahal hotel, the word Trump is still visible, even to ships at sea.

Inside the Taj, one of three casinos he once owned, shoppers can still browse the Trump Exchange store, which sells all Donald Style, from branded apparel to a dinner table set with gold charger plates and crystal glassware. A black-and-white blowup of the Donald, circa 1980, with windblown hair and firmer jaw, holds pride of place behind the cash register, beneath a bit of his CEO wisdom embossed on the wall: I like thinking Big. You have to think anyway so why not think big? D. Trump.

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Atlantic City hasn’t forgotten Trump, and the Republican front-runner for president can’t forget Atlantic City, where his casinos employed thousands and where his companies filed four bankruptcies between 1991 and 2009. By then, the real estate mogul’s share in Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts had already dwindled. He resigned from the board, retaining just a 10 percent stake. His three casinos were his in name only. Today, only one of them, the Taj, still bears the Trump brand.

10_16_TrumpAC_05 Trump says his spectacular failure in Atlantic City wasn’t his fault, that the collapse of the New Jersey casinos couldn’t be stopped and that he was smart to get out when he did. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

When asked about Atlantic City, Trump says the iconic resort town is “a disaster” that collapsed just before his timely exit, which is surely true. I n the town on which the Monopoly game was based, riches did not trickle down. Many inhabitants are not passing Go: 39,000 people live in a city where unemployment is 13.8 percent, the 10th highest in the nation, and the mortgage foreclosure rate is America’s highest.

Trump has been vigorously spinning his companies’ bankruptcies as evidence of his business acumen. “I had the good sense, and I’ve gotten a lot of credit in the financial pages—seven years ago, I left Atlantic City before it totally cratered,” he boasted in the first GOP primary debate. “And I made a lot of money in Atlantic City, and I’m very proud of it.”

Today, Trump is running for president, he says, to make people rich. How he fared in Atlantic City suggests a businessman savvy enough to build a temporary empire but one whose bankruptcies and eventual exit caused considerable pain for many people. While America knows Trump through his reality shows and golf courses, the residents here know him as a boss and civic figure, and their perspective may be the best available assessment of Trump’s claims that he can, as he says, “make America great again.”

Atlantic City attracted Trump and more established casino operators—Caesars, Harrah’s, Bally’s and Mirage Resorts—because New Jersey voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1976 legalizing casino gambling. Politicians promised gambling would pay for schools and roads, not just in the ailing seaside city but across the state. At the time, only faraway Nevada offered casino gambling, and Atlantic City was a short drive from many cities in the densely populated Northeast.

When Trump snagged his first Atlantic City casino license in 1982, there were questions about the size of his fortune, just as there are now. According to a biography by financial journalist Timothy L. O’Brien, TrumpNation: The Art of Being Donald, the then-36-year-old’s wealth was propped up by loans from his developer father. (Trump sued O’Brien, and the long litigation ended with the case being dismissed.) Today, Trump claims a net worth of $10 billion, while Forbes says it is more like $4 billion . Whatever his true worth was, in the ’80s and ’90s Trump’s New York flash gave Atlantic City a big PR boost. He brought glitzy high rollers, big-time boxing and celebrities to town. When Trump walked the boardwalk, people applauded. Police cruisers accompanied his limo, fore and aft.

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In 1991, the Trump Taj Mahal Casino, which had opened just a year before, filed for bankruptcy. Trump had financed it with $900 million in junk bonds. Although the company—and not Trump personally—filed for bankruptcy, he unloaded his Trump Princess yacht, his Trump Shuttle airline and stakes in other businesses.

The Taj bankruptcy hit Atlantic City’s small businesses much harder. Trump already had a reputation for being a very tough negotiator with suppliers—an echo of his campaign promise to negotiate the best trade deals for America. Contractors were so accustomed to getting paid cents on the dollar that they habitually built in an extra percentage, according to one Atlantic City bankruptcy lawyer.

10_16_TrumpAC_06 Vehicles arrive at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City N.J., October 24, 2014. When Trump resigned from the board of Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts in 2009, his three casinos were his in name only. Today, only one of them, the Taj, still bears the Trump brand. Wayne Parry/AP

J. Michael Diehl, who owns Freehold Music Center, sold Trump eight Yamaha grand pianos for around $100,000. “He put out a bid for pianos about a year before the Taj opened. I won the bid. I delivered the pianos, and I waited and I waited to get paid. And finally I heard from them that I had three choices: to accept 70 percent of the bid or to wait until the casino could afford to pay the bill in full. Or I could force them into bankruptcy with everybody else and maybe get 10 cents on the dollar. I took the 70 percent, and I lost 30 percent.”

Talking to Philly.com earlier this summer, Diehl said, “I'm not going to vote for him, that's for sure. That's a crude way of doing business.” Representatives at Trump’s company declined to comment on Diehl’s account and did not return calls for this story.

New Jersey state Senator Jim Whelan, Atlantic City’s mayor during the Trump years, and other sources who asked not to be quoted say Trump had a bad reputation among vendors even before the bankruptcies. “The fact is, there were a lot of small contractors and vendors who got hurt, who went out of business because Trump did not pay contracts on time,” he says.

Small vendors who grappled with delayed or lower payments as a business practice then became the unsecured creditors in the bankruptcies. In any bankruptcy, small creditors are forced to accept court-ordered percentages of what they are owed. New York bankruptcy lawyer Stephen Meister, who has represented Trump in other matters, defended Trump’s companies for seeking the best deals possible after bankruptcy. “A hallmark of any good reorganization plan is ‘shared sacrifice’ among all the stakeholders,” Meister says. “That is really what bankruptcy reorganization is all about. Everyone swallows their fair dose of the medicine. And Trump certainly swallowed his fair dose. He paid millions and gave up the yacht he had bought from the Sultan of Brunei.”

In addition to Trump’s financial problems that led to the Taj bankruptcy, in the ’90s Atlantic City began to face increasing gambling competition from all over the country—Indian casinos, riverboat gambling, horse tracks that added slots and gaming tables. Most Americans didn’t need to travel far to gamble, and Vegas posed new competition by transforming its reputation from a mob haven into an adult as well as family-friendly playground.

In the face of all that, Trump’s companies filed for three more bankruptcies, in 1992, 2004 and 2009. Trump’s serial bankruptcies stood out even in the increasingly tough Atlantic City casino business. The flurry of bankruptcies by Trump’s companies was different from that of other casino owners in Atlantic City, says gaming industry analyst Christopher Jones, managing director of North American research at Union Gaming Group, a Las Vegas-based investment bank focused on the global gaming industry. “The majority of the other [businesses] did not go bankrupt four times. Relative to his peer group, the properties weren’t as well-maintained as the others, which helped his decline.” Jones’s bottom line: “Trump didn’t do Atlantic City a lotta good in the later years.”

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When business was booming, casino industry employees in Atlantic City enjoyed personal and family health insurance and retirement benefits. But the spate of bankruptcies—Trump’s and, more recently, others’—washed away that stability. In 2014, Atlantic City lost 6,000 casino jobs in a matter of weeks, adding up to more than 10,000 for that year. The federal government had to pump in nearly $30 million in emergency employment-assistance funds, and the state of New Jersey set up special assistance centers to help the unemployed get relief and hunt for new jobs. “Frankly, you can’t fault Trump for the lost jobs, as much as I want to,” says Whelan, the former mayor. “He got out before the downturn.”

On the boardwalk and in the union hall, men and women who worked for Trump have a love-hate relationship with the mogul. Since Trump Entertainment—Trump-ian now in name only, and owned by investor Carl Icahn—filed for bankruptcy again last year, labor relations at the Trump crown jewel casino have imploded. Icahn is in a bitter fight with Unite Here Local 54, the union representing more than 11,000 workers, which has called him “a malignancy” in Atlantic City.

10_16_TrumpAC_02 In the union halls, those who worked for Trump in Atlantic City have a love-hate relationship with the mogul, but all seem to scorn his pal, Carl Icahn, as a union-buster. Mark Makela/Reuters

By contrast, Bob McDevitt, the union’s president, recalls a good relationship with Trump. “Trump never challenged whether the union was legitimate,” he says. “Icahn is trying to destroy the union.” Icahn has charged that the union cares more about its fees than workers’ health care and said union rules contributed to three recent casino closings. Trump has said he’d make Icahn his treasury secretary and point man for trade negotiations with China.

Like the other owners, Trump built his casinos on the Vegas model—windowless caverns brimming with slot machines and gaming tables. At the Taj, escalators make it easy to enter, difficult to leave. Once you’re inside and acclimated to the glow of the pink chandeliers, it takes an effort to find exit doors. One can walk several hundred carpeted yards in many directions without seeing sunlight. No brochures direct visitors to attractions outside the casino, not to the aquarium, nor even to a local restaurant. It’s a grim scene.

The idea, of course, is to keep you in the casino, gambling. “They built these boxes,” says Ellen Mutari, an economics professor at Atlantic City’s Stockton University, who with colleague Deborah M. Figart spent seven years researching a book on the effects of the casino industry on Atlantic City. “The message was, ‘Stay in here, it’s safe. We will take care of you!’ There were very few positive effects for local business.”

Today, Trump the politician can draw visitors off the casino floor. I watched the second GOP presidential debate in September in a room in the Taj Mahal’s “Chairman Tower.” (The complex is divided into the casino and towers.) As the forum dragged into its third hour, I ordered room service. An attendant arrived 45 minutes later, apologizing for the delay, explaining that she was the only staff member serving two towers. “We didn’t staff tonight, because we thought it would be a quiet night,” she explained, then pointed at the debate on the screen. “But everyone’s inside their room, watching this!”

She refused to give her name because the staff is instructed not to talk to reporters about Trump, but she said she’d worked at the casino for 20 years and praised the Donald’s legacy. Thanks to the steady work and benefits, she bought a house and expects to retire on a pension. “I remember once the union was negotiating with his people, and he called down from New York and said, ‘Give them what they want,’” she says. “I always liked him after that.”

Martin Wood, 80, has been minding his Wood’s Loan Office, a pawnshop on Atlantic Avenue, for five decades, and he takes a more skeptical view of Trump. The casinos were good for Wood, though. Each time a new casino opened, his business grew by 10 percent, Wood reckons. Gamblers dropped by every morning to pawn jewelry. If they got lucky, they returned at night to buy it back with their winnings. If not, after a couple of months Wood placed the keepsake among the other diamond engagement rings and pinkie rings under his glass counter. “I’m not impressed with Trump’s business acumen,” he says. “But then again, he’s probably not impressed with mine.”

10_16_TrumpAC_01 The illuminated Trump Taj Mahal Casino is seen from an empty rooftop parking lot at dusk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Trump has often bragged that he avoided the downturn in the iconic gambling town, but his actions also helped contribute to its demise. Mark Makela/Reuters

Keith Harris, an administrative assistant at the Asbury United Methodist Church’s community center, which feeds Atlantic City’s poor, says Trump had a good reputation even among the unemployed. “Everybody did seem to feel he was a better owner, as far as employees were concerned. But lots of people do feel he jumped ship and left a lot of us high and dry.”

Over at the Absecon Lighthouse, New Jersey’s tallest, Milton Glenn is director of education. He manned the front desk at Trump Plaza from 1991 to 1996 and now scoffs at Trump for running on a jobs platform. “Yes, he made a lot of money, yes, he got out at the right time, but he really did contribute to the economic devastation of this town. And he didn’t get out of here at the right time. He was pushed out by bankruptcy.”

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