Three Jersey Boys and a Philly native are joining forces with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to breathe new life into the shuttered Taj Mahal
by Laura D.C. Kolnoski
Later this summer, the exterior of Atlantic City’s Taj Mahal hotel and casino, with its familiar minarets, will begin morphing into the next incarnation of the 1990 boardwalk behemoth. In April, Hard Rock International (HRI) announced that it had purchased the 17-acre site. Following a complete renovation, the new owners said, the property will be reborn as the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.
Among the details bringing both attention and giddy anticipation to the project are the men behind it—three Jersey boys and one from nearby Philadelphia, all of them approaching the transformation as a labor of love. Attending the announcement press conference were Little Steven Van Zandt, longtime member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band; James Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International; Joseph Jingoli of Jingoli & Son developers in Lawrenceville; and Jack Morris, CEO of Edgewood Properties in Piscataway. Overseeing construction will be Philadelphia native Jon Lucas, HRI’s chief operating officer.
Van Zandt was there because of his Underground Garage musical endeavors, which is sponsored by HRI and will have a presence at the new venue. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, and a host of other dignitaries were also in attendance.
Jingoli, a former Atlantic City resident, is currently involved in the construction of the city’s substantial Gateway Project at the site of the former Atlantic City High School. The project includes construction of a new Stockton University campus with related housing, a parking garage, and more. Morris’ Edgewood Properties is a real estate development and property management company with operations in California and Florida as well as New Jersey.
“Both the Morris and Jingoli families are honored and excited to partner with Hard Rock International in the rebuilding of Atlantic City,” Morris said in a statement posted on his firm’s website. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of revitalizing one of our nation’s most iconic destinations.”
“They wouldn’t come here if they didn’t think they could make money,” stated the characteristically blunt Christie. Seminole leaders also spoke at the press conference, where Tribe Vice President Mitchell Cypress said, “There’s nothing like a bit of rock and roll to bring this city back.”
HRI’s Allen moderated the press conference, revealing that the former Taj will undergo a $375 million renovation. The sale was finalized on March 30.
“The Trump look will be completely removed,” he said, adding, “From world-renowned music events to innovative dining concepts, we’re excited to bring the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino experience to the Atlantic City boardwalk. Our commitment to Atlantic City has never been stronger, and we look forward to being a catalyst for further growth and development. Atlantic City is the second-largest gaming market in the United States after Las Vegas. Nobody in the world has the beach, the boardwalk, and the natural amenities Atlantic City has.”
“What Jim said is still 100 percent accurate,” said Lucas in June. “The minarets, gold leaf, and gingerbread on the exterior, and the glitzy, gaudy chandeliers will go away. It will have a warm and welcoming, modern, comfortable, contemporary feel. People will feel that as soon as they walk in.
“Our goal is to open by summer 2018,” Lucas continued. “Based on some of the challenges and hurdles, that may slide. We are working out the details regarding the grand opening, which will be announced. It’s traditional for us to open a new property with a Guitar Smash. Our goal is to electrify the coast.” In April, Allen said the event would ideally be held on the beach, like Jimmy Buffett’s concert on the sand, which opened his Margaritaville Experience at Resorts in 2013.
“We are now in planning mode, putting together the design and working with contractors to determine what the scope of the work will be,” Lucas explained. “We anticipate construction commencing in August on the interior and exterior.”
The Hard Rock Café, which has occupied the southern end of the building on the boardwalk for 20 years, is expected to be moved, “integrating it more into the facility” and adding beach access, Lucas said. The COO actually lived in New Jersey longer than Philadelphia and worked at the long-demolished Sands hotel and casino for more than 11 years.
“Having the Jersey–Philly connection brings an appreciation for Atlantic City,” he noted. “We saw it in its heyday and were proud of our accomplishments. There’s more of a connection, which creates a tie to the community, and local flair. The opportunity to help the city rebound is exciting and a challenge. We understand the market and the Northeast very well. This will help us compete with the other formidable properties there.”
Investor Carl Icahn purchased the Taj Mahal in 2015, shuttering it in October 2016 following a lengthy union strike over health and other benefits. Some 3,000 people lost their jobs. Simultaneously, Hard Rock officials were hoping last November’s referendum to allow casinos elsewhere in New Jersey, specifically the Meadowlands, would mean an expanded Garden State presence for HRI. The company even released an eye-popping rendering of what a Meadowlands Hard Rock would look like. Unfortunately for HRI, those plans went up in smoke when voters rejected the referendum.
At the April press conference, Allen said that in addition to more than 1,000 construction jobs, the new Hard Rock property would permanently employ an estimated 3,000 more. Those employees, undoubtedly including many former staffers at the Taj and other Atlantic City casinos, will be servicing more than 2,400 new slot machines, 130 table games, and an entirely redesigned interior. A new check-in and lobby lounge will lead to an estimated 2,000 refurbished guest rooms and suites that Allen promised would be “lavishly appointed.” A full-service spa will be included among the luxury amenities. A “Sound of Your Stay” music program will offer complimentary in-room Fender guitar checkouts.
Allen promised that the Hard Rock would offer live music all week, all year. Two separate arenas with total seating of 7,000 are also part of the plans. The design will mine HRI’s massive music memorabilia collection, featuring museumlike displays with handselected items focusing on New Jersey artists.
Allen, who has 37 years of experience in the industry, has been responsible for gaming operations for the Seminole Tribe of Florida since 2001. But he began his career in Atlantic City with a job as a dishwasher, and then became a cook at Bally’s on the boardwalk. In a bit of irony, he was hired by the Trump Organization, which had taken over the now-closed Atlantic City Hilton. (The Hilton, Atlantic City’s second casino after Resorts, was originally opened in 1978 by Steve Wynn as the Golden Nugget. The Golden Nugget name now belongs to the former Trump Marina.)
Allen’s career trajectory led him to the senior management team for three Trump Atlantic City properties, followed by executive positions with Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Park Place Entertainment, and Sun International Resorts, working nationwide. He is also a former member of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission Task Force on Gaming Regulation.
“We are confident we can grow the market,” Allen said. “Our goal is to market Atlantic City as one whole destination.”
Hard Rock International