Trump’s Casino Empire

Long before he was President of the United States or hosted a reality game show, Donald J. Trump was seen as the savior of Atlantic City because of his plans to reinvigorate the hotel and casino scene. Now, almost 30 years later, some of his behavior and decision-making during this period has been at the center of criticism for his presidential bid. Despite Donald Trump taking a front seat in the Republican nominee candidacy, betting sites do not predict that he will be the party’s  nominee.

Trump's Casino Empire

Trump was born in New York City and raised in the real estate business. He learned first-hand from his father Fred at the family’s firm, Elizabeth Trump & Son. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in with a degree in economics in 1968, he went to work for the firm full-time, and was eventually given control in 1971. He renamed it The Trump Organization.

Whereas his father focused on middle-income rentals in the outer boroughs of New York City, Trump moved the firm’s headquarters to Manhattan so he could take on larger projects. His name first drew attention in 1973 when he and his father were accused of racially profiling prospective tenants in some of their Brooklyn and Queens housing. The Trumps countersued, and the matter was settled in 1975.

Trump took on several high-profile NYC projects, including turning the once-beautiful Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt, establishing Trump Tower, and reconstructing the skating rink at Central Park in the early 1980s. As his empire and public profile grew, he began to get involved in other endeavors, such as licensing his name for things like board games and purchasing a team in the United States Football League, a competitor of the NFL.

Trump Enters the Casino World

The New Jersey Casino Control Commission granted Trump a casino license in March 1982, as the developer started acquiring land on and around Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk. It was notable in that the commission created the license on the spot, at the end of a two-hour hearing, whereas it could normally take months to approve or deny a license.

His first venture was as a partner with Harrah’s, which paid for the construction. Called Harrah’s at Trump Plaza, it was the 10th casino in Atlantic City. It was officially opened in May 1984. Trump was often seen at his casino, usually with celebrities that were in town for whatever major entertainment or sporting event he had lured to the property, but the $220 million project was just a sign of things to come.

Trump decided he didn’t need any hospitality-industry partners when he bought a nearly finished hotel at an Atlantic City marina just a year later. Purchased from the Hilton Hotel chain, it was called Trump’s Castle Hotel & Casino. This raised the ire of his first partners, Harrah’s, which claimed that two hotels with such similar names would confuse customers; but the complaint did not hold up in court. In his typical flashy fashion, Trump would arrive at the hotel aboard his nearly 300-foot yacht when visiting Atlantic City.

Following this disagreement, Trump bought out Harrah’s, which meant that he was the owner of two casinos; his third would be considered a masterpiece of design and a loaded gun on the financial side.

The Taj Mahal

It wasn’t just Trump who was gung-ho on developing Atlantic City properties. Merv Griffin, known to most as a television talk show host and producer, was also a successful developer, and his Griffin Gaming & Entertainment Company was doing well in the late 1980s. When the hotel/casino corporation Resorts International, credited as one of the founders of the gaming scene in Las Vegas, started faltering around this time due to increased competition, both Trump and Griffin made strong plays to take over the company.

In the end, a deal was brokered between the three parties which gave Griffin the Resorts-branded casinos in both Atlantic City and the Bahamas, while Trump took ownership over a stalled project, the Taj Mahal, in 1988.

The Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort was opened on April 2, 1990, with over 75,000 people attending the lavish ceremonies, which included a rare Michael Jackson performance. The $1 billion casino was seen as the crown jewel of Atlantic City, bringing in visitors from around the world in its early months; but a little more than a year after it opened, the hotel was forced to go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Note
“He opened it in what in retrospect was a cataclysmically bad time,” Steven P. Perskie told The Boston Globe. Perskie was a former State Casino Control Commission chairman and had many dealings with Trump. “Within months, if not weeks, he got hit with a national recession, which made the Taj Mahal economically inoperative.”

Along with the recession, Atlantic City’s saturation of casinos and the fact that nearby states were beginning to allow casinos to open were the biggest factors in the need to reorganize. Under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a company is allowed to stay operational while financial arrangements are worked out with creditors. As part of the deal, Trump agreed to limit his personal spending, and sold his yacht and his growing airline company.

Further Financial Trouble Ahead

The downturn in Atlantic City’s economy continued and less than a year after the Taj Mahal filing, Trump was forced to enter into Chapter 11 bankruptcy for his first two properties, Trump Plaza and Trump Casino. The restructuring worked for several years, and in 1995, Trump established Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts (THCR) as a publicly-traded company.

The new company took ownership of Trump Plaza and a year later purchased the Taj Mahal from Trump. Sensing things were improving in the economy, THCR developed a casino in Indiana and built a new casino, Trump’s World Fair, in Atlantic City in 1996. That casino closed three years later, with plans to build a large resort in its footprint.

The Atlantic City comeback never happened, and in 2004, THCR was forced to enter into bankruptcy once again to restructure its debt. As part of the deal this time, Trump reduced his stock ownership from 56 percent to 27 percent. The company name was also changed to Trump Entertainment Resorts (TER).

A year later, TER sold its Indiana casino and scrapped any further development plans it had. In 2007, the company looked for a buyout, but couldn’t come to terms with outside investors. Despite cutbacks in its hotels and casinos, the company declared bankruptcy for the fourth time in 2009, just days after Trump resigned as the chairman of the board, and his stock holding in the company was reduced to 10 percent. He has never again been an active part of a casino company. On his campaign stops, Trump explains to supporters that he personally has never declared bankruptcy, and out of the dozens of businesses he owns, his casino companies were the only ones to do so.

At the time of Trump’s exit, shares in TER were worth 23 cents each, down from a high of $14 a decade earlier.

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