Trump era in Atlantic City to end with a blast Wednesday with implosion of Trump Plaza

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As a casino tycoon, Donald Trump was no stranger to controversy. Here are a few of the issues that have followed him into his presidential campaign.

 ATLANTIC CITY – With the former Trump Plaza about to be demolished, this might seem like a good time to assess the legacy of the casino-hotel’s one-time operator.

Only someone’s already done that, enthusiastically praising Donald Trump’s role in the gaming industry.

“The Trump Organization enjoyed tremendous success in Atlantic City,” this account gushes, “and Donald Trump has been commended for the timing of his exit from this business.”

At least that’s the view from The Trump Organization’s online history.

But others see it differently, recalling 15 years of Boardwalk bombast, braggadocio, and business reversals.

A card used by repeat visitors displayed outside the long-vacant Trump Plaza on Atlantic City’s Boardwalk.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

“This is the fitting end of Trump’s era,” Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. said of the planned Wednesday implosion of Trump Plaza’s long-vacant hotel tower, which has even inspired nearby Caesar’s to promote a “stay and view” Schadenfreude special offering guests a “front seat to Atlantic City history.”

“You can’t take away the fact that he invested his money and got a lot of jobs for people,” the mayor said of Trump. “But he stiffed a lot of people and was selfish.”

Small also asserted Trump “made a mockery” of a struggling community “when he said, ‘I made a lot of money in Atlantic City and I got out.’”

Indeed, during his tumultuous time here, Trump drew attention for his celebrity status and glittering properties — and for his casino firm’s massive losses and multiple bankruptcies.

A Feb. 17 implosion is expected to bring down a 34-story hotel tower as part of demolition of the Trump Plaza complex in Atlantic City.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

And while Trump boasted about his Atlantic City empire, critics note, his contractors often clamored — frequently, without success — for full payment. Similarly, Trump’s lenders saw his debts reduced in court without repayment, while investors saw prices plunge for his casino firm’s stock.

Oh, and lawsuits flew around like so many seagulls fighting over spilled popcorn.

“I think some people are going to be happy to see the Trump Plaza come down,,” said David Spatz, a Linwood radio host who once covered the casinos as an entertainment reporter.

At one point during Trump’s time in Atlantic City, Spatz said, “The sun rose and set on him here.”

But the casino operator “also screwed over a lot of people in town,” said Spatz, who has a midday show on NewsTalk 1400 WOND.

For every person with fond memories of Trump, he suggested, “You’ll probably find three who say, ‘I lost my job. I lost my business. I lost this and that because he wouldn’t pay his bills.'”

As a reporter, Spatz also witnessed Trump’s ability to quickly change his mood and to revise his version of reality.

The casino operator could share a pleasant meal with a reporter — typically pouring ketchup on a steak “burnt to a crisp”  — and then call later with an angry tirade over his coverage, said Spatz.

A decorative arch leading to Steel Pier in Atlantic City shows design elements from the former Trump Taj Mahal.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

“Trump would say, ‘I never said that!’ and you would say, ‘Yes, you did, Donald.’”

Ultimately, the Trump firm’s uneven record in Atlantic City reflected his personality, observed Marvin Roffman, a former gaming analyst.

“Trump is a very smart guy, but he has a major flaw; he cannot take criticism,” said Roffman, who lost his job after Trump threatened to sue his employer over an unflattering opinion of a Trump property.

“As long as you’d say things he was in agreement with, he could be a really nice, sweet guy,” said Roffman. “If you said something he didn’t want to hear, he’d turn into a monster.”

Fencing surrounds the site of the former Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, NJ. The hotel tower of the former casino will be imploded on February 17, 2021.
Chris LaChall/Courier-Post

The demolition of Trump Plaza, vacant since 2014, will remove an eyesore from the center of the city’s famed Boardwalk, said Small, whose administration has made the project a top priority.

It also will erase the last remaining link to the Trump era, he added.

Marvin Roffman

Trump is a very smart guy, but he has a major flaw; he cannot take criticism.

The casino-hotel, built at a cost of $214 million, was Trump’s first venture in Atlantic City when it opened next to Boardwalk Hall in 1984.

The developer added the Trump Marina one year later and his largest gaming hall, the Trump Taj Mahal, in 1990.  A fourth attraction, Trump World’s Fair, operated from 1996 to 1999.

Trump’s name, once omnipresent on his buildings, no longer glows on the resort city’s skyline.

The Trump Marina, which was sold in 2011, is now the Golden Nugget. The Taj Mahal changed hands after a 2004 bankruptcy and closed in 2016; it reopened two years later without its brightly colored domes and minarets as the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

Trump World’s Fair was demolished after its closing.

The partial outline of what was once a “Trump Plaza” sign remains over the Boardwalk entrance to the gaming hall, now owned by billionaire Carl Icahn. Many of the windows are shattered in the fenced-off complex and glimpses of the building’s interior show dilapidated conditions.

“The history of Trump in Atlantic City was pretty much over-promising and under-delivering,” declared Moorestown attorney Glenn Zeitz, who represented a feisty widow in an eminent-domain dispute with the developer.

The former Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City is now the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

Trump Plaza was the 10th casino-hotel to open in Atlantic City, part of a “second wave” for an industry that debuted in 1978, according to the state’s Casino Control Commission.

Spatz noted Trump, who ran a helicopter service that flew in high rollers from Manhattan, celebrated some successful years in Atlantic City.

“He was willing to put up the huge bucks it took to bring in (major events),” said Spatz, adding the big shows helped businesses throughout the city.

“He brought the Rolling Stones here and paid through the nose,” he observed.

The mayor shared that view. 

“Mike Tyson was an Atlantic City staple because of Donald Trump,” Small said of the former heavyweight champion.

The former Trump Marina in Atlantic City is now the Golden Nugget.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

But once-thriving gaming halls struggled as legal gambling spread to nearby states. Other problems, like higher costs for gasoline, economic downturns and smoking restrictions, also challenged the industry.

Trump’s casinos were hit harder than most because of a staggering level of debt, noted Roffman.

In February 2004, Trump’s publicly held casino firm — Trump Entertainment Resorts — warned it might miss payments on long-term debt of $1.8 billion. In addition to “substantial indebtedness,” the firm noted “recurring operating losses” of almost $125 million over the previous three years.

David Spatz

A lot of people won’t be all that sad to see Trump Plaza come down.

A cash squeeze left the company unable “to refurbish our properties to desired levels or to pursue various capital expansion plans, such as the addition of more hotel rooms,” it wrote in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The report also said Trump, who received a salary as the firm’s president and CEO, had been paid more than $8 million from 2001 through 2003. Trump held an unpaid role as the firm’s chairman, it added.

Trump, by then a reality TV star, maintained an upbeat view.

In a March 2004 press release, Trump declared his brand “is as strong as it’s ever been.”

“The success of ‘The Apprentice’ has generated significant exposure for our company’s largest asset, the Trump Taj Mahal,” he said, while acknowledging his firm was seeking an investor to help trim its debt.

One month later, Trump announced his firm would reorganize its finances under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy action.

“I have never been more excited about the prospects for our company,” he said.

Trump Entertainment Resorts sought bankruptcy protection again in 2009.

The firm at that time employed about 2,800 people at Taj Mahal, 1,500 at Trump Plaza and 1,200 at Trump Marina.

The second reorganization came after the firm had spent heavily to expand the Taj Mahal, which originally offered 1,228 hotel rooms, with the 41-story, 782-room Chairman’s Tower.

A couple walk past a fence surrounding the dilapidated Trump Plaza, now awaiting demolition in Atlantic City.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

At that time, the firm reported net losses attributable to its casino operations of about $1.24 billion from 2007 through 2009, according to an SEC filing.

Those deficits came at a time of industry-wide problems, the company noted.  But while 2009 gross gaming revenues fell by 13.2 percent for all Atlantic City casinos, they dropped by 14.5 percent for Trump’s firm.

Despite the losses, the casino business provided revenue for other Trump enterprises.

For instance, an SEC filing said, the Atlantic City-based company spent $157,000 in 2008 and 2009 to lease office space in Trump Tower in Manhattan and $94,000 “for the periodic use of Mr. Trump’s airplane and golf courses to entertain high-end customers.”

The hotel tower of Trump Plaza, now being prepared for implosion, looms over Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, right.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

The company also spent more than $1.1 million over the two-year period for “Trump-labeled merchandise,” including $775,000 “for Trump Ice bottled water served to our customers.”

It noted Trump “may be entitled to royalties from these third-party vendors.”

Trump cut his ties with the casino firm just days before the 2009 bankruptcy, which left him as a minority stockholder. He had no management role when Trump Entertainment Resorts entered bankruptcy for a final time in 2014.

The developer’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, also resigned her $150,000-a-year seat on the company’s board in February 2009, according to an SEC filing.

Donald Trump’s departure from Atlantic City — and the wording of his notice to the SEC — may have provided the basis to declare more than $700 million in business losses on his 2009 federal income tax return, the New York Times reported last year.

Trump used that declaration to obtain a $72.9 million tax refund, a payment now being scrutinized by the IRS, the Times story said.

The Trump Plaza’s hotel tower is awaiting implosion in Atlantic City.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

A lawyer for The Trump Organization, Alan Garten, summarized the Times’ findings by saying “most, if not all, of the facts appear to be inaccurate,” the story said.

Trump Plaza was one of four casino-hotels to close in 2014 due to “the combined forces of increased competition and a soft economy,” according to the Casino Control Commission’s history.

Also going under were the Atlantic Club, Showboat and Revel.

The commission’s review also notes Trump’s combative approach, saying he “threatened takeover attempts (in 1986) against Holiday Inns Inc., which owned Harrah’s, and Caesars World Inc.”

One year later, it adds, Trump “turned his attention to Resorts and reached a deal to acquire the stock held by the estate of Resorts chairman James Crosby.” He sold the Resorts casino “along with much of the company to Merv Griffin in 1988, before the Taj Mahal opened.”

Trump’s firm piled on debt with construction of the billion-dollar Taj Mahal, which was Atlantic City’s largest casino when it opened.

That prompted Trump’s clash with Roffman, then vice president of the research department at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Roffman predicted problems for the Taj Mahal, which was about to open in April 1990.

Yhe remnants of a Trump Plaza logo appear on a wall at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

Roffman said the hotel-casino would set records in the spring and summer, particularly given the intense publicity surrounding the project.

But he warned business would falter “when the cold winds of October” blew across the Boardwalk. And when that happened, Roffman said, Trump would be challenged to make payments on the costly junk bonds that had financed the venture.

Roffman said he had an appointment — made through Donald Trump shortly after the interview — to tour the nearly finished Taj Mahal. He arrived to find his comments had appeared in print.

In Roffman’s account, he entered the lobby to be cursed by Trump’s brother, Robert, and was escorted from the building. A short time later, Donald Trump threatened to sue his employer if the analyst did not make a public apology, Roffman said.

Trump also demanded the analyst call a top editor at the Wall Street Journal, according to Roffman.

“Trump said, ‘You’re going to tell him that s-o-b reporter misquoted you,’” he recalled.

“He wanted me to apologize publicly or the firm would have to dismiss me,” asserted Roffman, who said he previously had found Trump to be “quite charming.”

“Basically, what Trump was saying was, ‘You’re going to lie,’” he continued.

Watch: Donald Trump’s disappearing act in Atlantic City

The last casino-hotel to bear Donald Trump’s name in Atlantic City is being demolished.

Jim Walsh, Cherry Hill Courier-Post

Roffman said that, fearing for his job, he agreed to fax a letter to Trump that had been written by his boss. But Roffman then wrote a second letter to Trump, reaffirming his initial views.

“My boss came in and took the letter and said, ‘If you send this letter, consider yourself an ex-employee.’”

Roffman sent the letter.

“They fired me on the spot and escorted me out of the building,” he said.

Roffman later filed separate lawsuits against Trump and his former employer, accusing the casino developer of slander and libel. He settled both suits for payments that allowed him to launch his own investment firm.

“Today, I bought a new Bentley — or should I say Trump bought it for me,” the 81-year-old retiree said in a recent interview.

A roadside sign no longer promotes the Trump Plaza casino-hotel, which awaits demolition after closing in 2014.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

Another notable lawsuit pitted Trump against Vera Coking, an Atlantic City woman who refused to sell her three-story boarding house to make way for a Trump Plaza expansion project in 1994.

Coking had also refused to sell her home in 1983, when Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione wanted to include the site in a planned casino-hotel. Guccione erected a steel framework around Coking’s home before his project fell through.

The former Trump Plaza casino-hotel in Atlantic City is awaiting demolition.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

Trump said he wanted the widow’s property for use as a limousine parking area, said Zeitz, the woman’s attorney.

“I suspected the ground-level parking was a pretext,” the attorney added. “Once he got the property, he would then be in a position to change what he’d do with it.”

Coking filed a civil rights lawsuit against Trump and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in a bid to prevent her property’s forced sale through eminent domain.

Zeitz nicknamed his client in the highly publicized case as “The Vera,” a title intended to rile Trump.

During one meeting, the attorney added, he gave Trump a baseball inscribed “From The Vera to The Donald.”

“I told him, ‘I’ve heard you play hardball. I want you to know I play hardball, too.’”

The fight, which Zeitz compared to standing up to a bully, continued for more than five years before a state judge ruled in Coking’s favor.

An order also required the defendants to cover attorney’s fees and legal costs for Coking.

“I was one of the few lawyers who didn’t get stiffed by Trump,” said Zeitz.

A more recent court fight suggests Trump’s popularity has waned here since his time in the gaming industry.

That 2017 dispute focused on the ownership of the letters from T-R-U-M-P signs that had been removed from the then-closed Taj Mahal.

A Philadelphia firm — Recycling of Urban Materials for Profit, or RUMP — contended it had purchased the letters from workers at the site for $250. It hoped to sell them online for as much as $100,000.

The casino’s owner, Trump Taj Mahal Associates, said it owned the signs and planned to destroy them.

In a court filing, the Philadelphia firm said a worker who sold the letters “recounted how the day before he was transporting a large ‘Trump’ sign on a truck for disposal, which was greeted throughout his travels in the Atlantic City area by rude gestures and insults.”

It also argued the signs’ value “is further increased by virtue of its association with one of Trump’s more notorious business failures.”

The two sides reached an undisclosed settlement.

Roffman also has an anecdote to show the erosion of Trump’s stature in Atlantic City.

He tells of a time, before his court fight with Trump, when he and the developer were walking outside Trump Plaza.

“People would recognize him (and) they’d go, “Oh, Mr. Trump!” he recounted.

One woman approached Trump and excitedly asked to shake his hand, saying she would not wash her own hand for the next month, Roffman said.

A chair from the long-vacant Trump Plaza, reinforced by a piece of lumber, serves workers preparing to demolish the Atlantic City landmark.
Jim Walsh, Courier-Post

He returned to the site about four years ago for a TV interview.

“I’m standing outside the door, and the panes of glass were broken or had cracks. (Trump’s) name was literally ripped off the side of the building,” he recounted.

“I said, I was in this very spot (with Trump) and there were hundreds and hundreds of people cheering,” said Roffman. “Look at it now.”

Jim Walsh reports for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. His interests include crime, the courts and being the first with breaking news. Reach him at jwalsh@gannettnj.com.

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