Update: As of June 13, 2020, the Press of Atlantic City is now reporting that owner Carl Icahn has reached agreement with Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small, Sr. to tear the building down no later than February 2021.
The simple answer to the headline’s question is Carl Icahn, the 84-year-old billionaire and supporter of President Donald Trump, the casino’s namesake. That’s the simple answer to this question, but the Trump era is a constant barrage of changing news stories, so much so, that the history of Trump’s casinos and his time in that business is often overlooked and forgotten.
The Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino closed down permanently on September 16, 2014. It was around that time that my personal fascination for Atlantic City began. I read a piece in Politico Magazine called “Detroit with a Boardwalk” and was so fascinated, that a few weeks later I made a trip there with a few friends. I had gone when I was younger, on family vacations to the Jersey shore and other occasions, but I was drawn in by the piece so much that I became incredibly fascinated with the casino culture of the town. So much of that history is defined by Donald Trump, despite no casinos remaining that bear his name still in operation.
The last gasp of Trump’s legacy is the Trump Plaza building. The building is literally falling apart to the point where it is a public danger and has led to Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. court ordering Carl Icahn to tear it down. This piece is a first on a series of Atlantic City gambling-oriented stories based on my travels there and years of reading and studying the media and city’s gambling history, centered specifically around the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino.
The Casino and Trump’s Atlantic City Beginnings
Donald Trump expanded his New York City empire down to the Jersey shore in the early 1980’s. He obtained a gambling license in 1982 and partnered with the Holiday Inn company, who owned the Harrah’s Resorts brand, to expand their Harrah’s Casino imprint. When Harrah’s at Trump Plaza opened on May 14, 1984, it was a $210 million 39-floor casino and was the biggest gambling center in the city at the time.
Trump was able to get a second Atlantic City casino just a year after the Plaza’s opening. Hilton hotels was nearly completing construction on a $320 million hotel project in Atlantic City’s marina but the city ultimately denied them a gambling license. Trump bought the casino and finished the project, opening it as Trump’s Castle later that year.
Trump’s Atlantic City highrolling didn’t end with Trump’s Castle. Trump was known for bringing a star power quality to Atlantic City, perhaps best embodied by the Michael Spinks / Mike Tyson fight at the Trump Plaza held on June 27, 1988. Trump also sponsored WrestleMania V which was held next door at the Atlantic City Convention Center which took place April 2, 1989.
Trump didn’t stop there, he then bought out the long planned Taj Mahal casino for a whopping $273 million from Resorts International after the company began running out of money to finish the project and a highly publicized bidding war with Merv Griffin. When all was said and done, it was a $1 billion project and the largest casino in the world. In signature Trump fashion, he branded the casino the “eighth wonder of the world”.
Bankruptcies and a Slow Decline
Donald Trump, in many ways, became Mr. Atlantic City, but in doing so, he accrued a lot of debt. It also didn’t help that around the same time he sunk a lot of money into a failed airline venture called Trump Shuttle that started in 1989 and ended by 1992 due to loss of money. With most of the Taj Mahal’s funding coming from high interest junk bonds, it ended up forcing the property to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy just 15 months after opening despite its early successes.
By 1995, all of his casinos were then consolidated into a publicly traded company called Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts. A year later, Trump opened the Trump’s World Fair in 1996 but it ended up closing by 1999 and being torn down and sold due to structural problems. By 2004, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy yet again and was renamed Trump Entertainment Resorts. This was just a year after the very successful Borgata Casino opened in 2003, which has consistently been the top gambling revenue performer in Atlantic City since its opening.
The company never recovered despite its best attempts and even much hyped expansion of a new tower on the Trump Taj Mahal in 2008. The Trump Entertainment Resorts company filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Trump resigned as chairman and maintained only a 10% stake in the company but this basically marked the divorce of Donald Trump and Atlantic City, other than in name only. Revenues did rise at his casinos during his Atlantic City tenure, but they were never enough to keep the brand out of bankruptcy.
The Closing of the Trump Plaza: From Boardwalk Icon to Eyesore
By the time the Trump Plaza was nearing its eventual close of September 2014, it was in rough shape. Letters of Trump’s name on the signage not lighting, broken ice machines and even one loyal longtime guest interviewed by the USA Today saying he brought his own showerhead in the final days of staying there. Trump Entertainment Resorts wanted to find a buyer but a deal fell through for $20 million to a California firm shortly before its close.
Years of attempts to demolish the property were disrupted and the property still sits under the ownership of Carl Icahn. Odd bureaucratic technicalities have kept the property from being demolished. But as of now, the current leadership of Atlantic City is trying to court order Carl Icahn to demolish the property. It will be interesting to see how this matter plays out as we approach the peak summer tourism season on the Boardwalk.
Over the years, I’ve watched the property as it has rapidly declined on my summer visits to Atlantic City. Up until about two years ago, the boardwalk level bar still had its table settings in tact and you could see the bar still fully stocked, as if it was going to re-open at any time. It truly was a haunting scene. Last summer when I visited, there were lights flickering on the higher floors nonstop. I’ve included a few photos I took over my various Atlantic City visits of the Trump Plaza. We will update this post as the demolition story develops.
For full closure of this piece, what about the fate of the other Trump properties other than the Plaza? Trump’s Castle became the Golden Nugget Atlantic City in 2011. The Trump Taj Mahal became the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City in 2018. I hope to do a more detailed piece on the latter as a continuation of this series in the near future.