Richard D. “Skip” Bronson with Andrew Meisler and A. M. Silver. The War at the Shore: Donald Trump, Steve Wynn, and the Epic War to Save Atlantic City. New York: Overland Press, 2012. 220 pages.
Many people are fascinated by the high-stakes world of casino development. Deals get announced that create thousands of jobs and bring in millions of dollars of revenue a month, or proposals to build casinos get tabled somewhere in the US every month or so. Skip Bronson, a real estate developer in his own right, worked alongside Steve Wynn for several years, first attempted to build a casino in Connecticut, then, as the title lets you know, battling Donald Trump for the right to do so in Atlantic City. In THE WAR AT THE SHORE, he takes the reader inside the Wynn war room and delivers several fascinating insights on how deals get done–and done away with.
In essence, this book looks at how Steve Wynn tried to build a Vegas-style mega-resort, which might have been called Le Jardin, on the H-Tract, where the Borgata is today. Donald Trump, Bally’s Arthur Goldberg, and others opposed him, both in the courts but also through less direct means, such as funding “community” opposition groups.
Bronson begins not at the beginning, but at a contentious community meeting in Atlantic City where he feared for his life. In general, Bronson doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of Atlantic City or its environs. Most residents are on the take or have their hands out, and he even complains about clams washing up on the beach in front of the South Cornwall Ave. house in Ventnor that he lived in part-time while chasing the deal. I’ve got some inside information here because I used to be a member of the Ventnor Beach Crew, the elite group of city employees charged with keeping the beach here, and I can say that dead clam stink, while it is an occasional problem, isn’t a chronic one, and it certainly shouldn’t spoil the pleasure of beachfront living just steps from the city’s only surfer’s beach and the storied Ventnor City Fishing Pier. While he singles out some locals for praise, particularly Mayor James Whelan, his overall sentiment seems to hover between disgust and contempt–which makes it easier to understand why things didn’t click with many in the community.
Community involvement was key to the Wynn/H-Tract deal because, as a condition for investing over a billion dollars, Wynn wanted improved access to the H-Tract. This involved building the thoroughfare now known as the Brigantine Connector, which indeed improved access to the Marina District, but whose construction demanded nine local residents sacrifice their homes (for which they’d receive twice “fair market value”). Clearly, it’s a difficult political position, and any hesitation on the part of locals was exacerbated by the full-court press Donald Trump, among others, employed, chiefly to stymie Wynn and prevent a potential rival.
Bronson does a great job of bringing to life the various characters he met and situations he found himself during the five years he tried to get Le Jardin built (1995-2000). He provides what I think is the best profile of Arthur Goldberg, former Bally’s/Park Place Entertainment CEO, in print today, and we even get to see the “Mirage Volcano” erupt a few times (even scarier, he says, is when Steve Wynn speaks with complete calm to those who’ve let him down).
I need to point out, though, that there are several errors in the book that pulled me out of the story. Some are relatively minor, like referring to Mickey Brown as the head of the “New Jersey Gaming Commission” (a body whose existence is a mystery to me), when he actually helmed the Division of Gaming Enforcement. Others reflect the fact that this book was apparently written a while ago: Foxwoods is labeled “the largest, most profitable casino in the world” (Venetian Macao has had that honor for five years now) and the book ends on a happy note with MGM MIRAGE about to build the $5 billion MGM Atlantic City on the land where Le Jardin once might have been. That project was announced in 2007, tabled in 2008, and killed in 2010 when MGM Resorts effectively surrendered its NJ gaming license rather than cut ties with Pansy Ho, its Macau partner. Ditto for the reference to Atlantic City as “America’s fastest-growing city.” It seems that much of this book was written five years ago and not strenuously revised before publication.
So it’s a good book, but it’s only as good as the recollections of the principals, and there are some areas where standard fact-checking and updating would have given the manuscript more immediacy.
The need for a current assessment is nowhere clearer than in the wrap up, in which Bronson says that, in the end, the War at the Shore ended in “a triumph for all involved.” Bronson got to say he’d turned a former dump into land valued at $400 million, Trump kept out a competitor, and Atlantic City got the Borgata.
I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. In fact, I’d argue that the War at the Shore might have been the beginning of the end for Atlantic City, and had ripple effects throughout the gaming industry that can’t be underestimated. Let’s imagine that Trump doesn’t try to block Wynn, and instead retaliated by selling Trump Plaza and putting the proceeds into renovating Trump Marina into something that could rival Wynn, or sold the Marina and the Plaza to turn the Taj into a true mega-resort. Park Place also doubled down on its properties, starting expansion programs like what Harrah’s did with Harrah’s and Aztar started with the Tropicana (under Dennis Gomes, incidentally). Wynn breaks ground on Le Jardin in 1996; it opens in 1999 as something like the Bellagio. This pushes back Beau Rivage a few years, and by 2000 Mirage Resorts is getting enough cash from its AC operation that its stock price is considerably higher: no MGM buyout. Circus Circus Enterprises opens “Mandalay East” in early 2000, and Boyd’s Borgata comes online soon after.
Under this scenario, Atlantic City now has as many as a half-dozen destination resorts and is able to do what the Strip did in the early 2000s. Maybe you’ve got a season of MTV’s Real World filmed at Borgata, or Ocean’s 12 is set in Atlantic City. There’s a real turnaround in public perception, and Atlantic City, now established as a true rival to Las Vegas, is able to weather “competition” from Pennsylvania slot parlors later in the decade.
Maybe MGM never acquires Mirage Resorts. After finishing Le Jardin, Wynn build Beau Rivage, then starts planning for Macau. MGM maybe picks up the Desert Inn (again) and develops CityCenter there. Whatever the impact on the rest of the industry, though, it’s hard to argue that Atlantic City is better off with the cards it was dealt thanks to Trump et al’s obstruction of the H-Tract’s development.
In any event, WAR AT THE SHORE is a great look inside why Wynn left Atlantic City the second time, and provides a good perspective in general on the political and deal-making (not design) side of casino development.