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Gaming in Atlantic City..............
A History of Legal Gambling in New Jersey -
Part Six -- By Stephen Piccolo
The next casino to open and the last to be renovated and added to was the Claridge, or as its official opening name was - Del Webb’s Claridge Hotel & Hi-Ho Casino. Webb, who died in 1974, had a long history in the gaming business. It was Webb’s company that built Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas along with having a 10% interest in the casino. Webb also built the Sahara and ended up owning it. At the time of his death, Webb’s casino holdings included the Mint in downtown Vegas, the Sahara Reno, the Sahara Tahoe and the Nevada Club in Laughlin.
After Webb’s death, Robert H. Johnson assumed control of the company. In late 1979, the Webb Company entered into an equal partnership agreement with Claridge Associates, a group of Connecticut investors headed by F. Francis “Hi-Ho” D’Addario. Claridge Associates had purchased the old Claridge Hotel on the boardwalk and had run out of money after they started renovating the 300 room hotel. The project also included the construction of a tower with 200 new guest rooms, a 30,000 sq.ft. casino and a 500 car parking garage. The final cost was reported to be $150 million.
At the time of the partnership agreement, the Webb Corporation was awaiting trial in federal court in Las Vegas on various charges of conspiracy. It was this reason that the DGE, after its two year investigation, for the first time opposed the granting of a temporary license. Because of this and other alleged “impropriorities” uncovered in the DGE investigation, the Webb Corporation “cleaned house” by switching executives around its sixty-seven subsidiaries. Each one singled out by the DGE quietly vanished from the scene. To avoid being denied a temporary license in July 1981, while the trial was still pending, the Webb Corporation formed Claridge Management Corporation to take over its 50% interest in the Claridge casino and an “institutional trustee” was named to handle financial transactions between the new company and the Webb Corporation. This plan kept the Webb Corporation completely isolated from the operation. Because of these steps taken, the temporary license was granted and the Claridge opened on July 20, 1981 as Atlantic City’s smallest casino.
Six months later the Webb Corporation was acquitted in Las Vegas and the Gaming Commission allowed the company to reacquire its interest in the Claridge. Permanent licensing hearings for the Claridge opened in May of 1982. During the proceedings, the Webb Corporation announced it had bought out the D’Addario group to become sole owners. The DGE suddenly relented and withdrew its objections to licensing the Webb Corporation. The commission voted unanimously to grant a regular license to the Claridge.
The Claridge has had it’s share of ups and downs over the years, unfortunately mostly downs. Being a “small” casino in a “large” casino market never helped. When the Webb Corporation decided to get out of gaming completely, the Claridge was taken over by the owners of Fitzgeralds of Las Vegas. A new parking garage built to help the facility was closed shortly after opening due to the well publicized tragedy of the death of two women whose car crashed through the retaining wall of the structure plunging them to the street below. The Claridge is now officially up for sale and the future of the property is anybody’s guess.
Ramada Inns had paid $20 million for the old Ambassador Hotel. Their original plans called to renovate the old hotel and convert it into a 546 room hotel complex with a 60,000 sq.ft. casino, 1200 seat dinner theater, 1000 seat ballroom and other public amenities. The proposed plan was estimated to cost $80 million. Governor Brendan Byrne had finally had enough with the “patch and paint” jobs in Atlantic City and wanted the old Ambassador demolished. The CCC agreed with the governor and rejected the plan. Ramada’s president, M. William Isbell, threatened to appeal the decision in the courts but capitulated and now was happy with a new plan that called for the “peeling” of the bricks from the old hotel structure and build a new facility - using the steel framework of the Ambassador, definately a unique way to build the complex. On November 9, 1979, the bricks started to come down. Isbell’s unhappines with the original decision delayed the opening of the casino as much as two years, not counting how much more the new construction would cost. He also felt, justifiably so, that a “new set of rules” were being applied to Ramada citing the previous renovation projects approved by the CCC in the past.
At about the same time Ramada started construction on its Atlantic City complex, they announced that they were purchasing the Tropicana in Las Vegas. With this purchase, Ramada decided to name the Atlantic City property Tropicana also to capitalize on the “known” name in gaming. The projected cost of the casino was to be $130 million but cost overruns boosted the actual price to a then record $330 million before its opening date and was expected to reach $400 million before it was completed a year or so down the line making it the world’s most expensive gambling resort at that time. Just to compare, the Atlantic City Tropicana had 521 guest rooms and an average size casino. The original MGM Grand in Las Vegas had a casino larger than two football fields and 2800 guest rooms - and cost only $126 million!
The partially completed hotel opened on November 23, 1981 and would get its permanent license in one year. Ramada was criticized for allowing most of the Tropicana management team in Las Vegas, alleged to be corrupt and involved in possible skimming, to stay on after the purchase by Ramada but by the time their permanent license hearings began there was no one left in the Ramada organization who could be associated with past indiscretions. Soon after opening, the Tropicana built a unique indoor amusement area called Tivoli Pier. It was to be a throwback to the “old” Atlantic City amusement piers of the past. With that, the Tropicana name was also changed to TropWorld Casino and Entertainment Resort. The family theme did not seem to work and the Tivoli Pier was closed in 1995 to make way for a new poker, keno and simulcast area which opened in 1996. A new tower was also built above the parking garage bringing the TropWorld room inventory to approximately 1600, presently the largest hotel in New Jersey. In July of 1996, the name of the complex was changed back to Tropicana. With the casino addition and expansion plus the new tower, the Tropicana hopes to position itself for the future competition of the mega-resorts now planned for Atlantic City.
Next issue - Donald Trump! His story in Atlantic City requires and entire part to this series.