Mel Evans / AP
Monday, Jan. 13, 2014 | 9:51 a.m.
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — New Jersey's Atlantic Club Casino Hotel shut down early Monday morning, the victim of a glut of casinos in the northeastern U.S.
Once Atlantic City's top-earning casino, where then-owner Steve Wynn clowned with Frank Sinatra in commercials, bringing the legendary singer an armful of fresh towels, the Atlantic Club went out with a whimper. In the hours before the 12:01 a.m. closing, its restaurants and bars had all shut down, and many gamblers and employees had already left.
A few die-hards that stayed on the casino floor until the end, counting down its final five seconds as dealers who were suddenly unemployed burst into tears and hugged each other. Within moments, casino staff began stacking and counting chips and preparing to remove cash boxes from the casino floor.
"Where was our support?" asked Kathy Buonasorte, a cocktail server for 28 of the casino's 33 years. "They all left us. No politician helped us. No one came to save us."
On the sidewalk outside the casino, she hugged fellow server Beth DeLuccia, who she described as the first friend she made at the casino. Nearby, server Maureen Cohen had just finished her final shift.
"I served my last drink at 4 this afternoon," she said. "It was incredibly sad. Can you believe how pathetic it's going to be to come over (a nearby) bridge and see a closed casino?" She said people who used to work at the casino but hadn't been there for 20 years came back Sunday to say goodbye.
The employees were among the 1,600 workers who lost their jobs. By 9 a.m., hundreds of them had lined up in a long hallway of a union hall, hoping to score a $20 supermarket gift card and to secure help in filling out unemployment paperwork.
"It's a sad day," said David Rebuck, director of the state Division of Gaming Enforcement, who watched the shutdown process begin right after midnight. Dealers and security personnel set to work counting the take from the casino's final day. Overnight, workers were to read the meter on each of the hundreds of slot machines, empty the cash containers and secure them in the counting room. At some point on Monday, armored cars were to remove the remaining cash.
The hotel's safe deposit boxes had been emptied hours before the shutdown as the final hotel guests checked out, and front-desk cashier drawers were already removed, leaving gaping holes.
By Wednesday, crews from the Tropicana, one of two rival casinos who bought the Atlantic Club intending to put it out of business, will begin removing the slot machines and table games. The casino floor will be bare by the end of the month, Rebuck said.
Guests helped themselves to souvenirs as well, digging up or ripping out potted plants and even six-foot-tall trees from planters on their way out the door.
It was the first casino closure in Atlantic City since the Sands shut down in 2006. But that was intended to make way for a bigger, better casino that Pinnacle Entertainment planned, but never actually built.
Struggling for years against newer, bigger casinos in Atlantic City and in neighboring states, the Atlantic Club sought a buyer for the last few years but was unable to attract one. It filed for bankruptcy in November and was sold for a combined $23.4 million just before Christmas to Tropicana Entertainment and Caesars Entertainment. Tropicana bought the customer lists in addition to the table games and slot machines while Caesars bought the 801-room hotel, for which it has no immediate plans.
The Atlantic Club opened in December 1980 as the Golden Nugget, owned at the time by casino magnate Steve Wynn. Over the years, as the Atlantic City casino market expanded, the casino changed hands several times and went through a handful of names: The Grand, Bally's Grand, the Atlantic City Hilton, ACH and finally the Atlantic Club.
As newer casinos opened with 2,000 rooms and hot nightclubs, pools and spas, it was no longer so special. It lost market share to its local competitors, and the decline was hastened when the first Pennsylvania casino opened in 2006.
The Atlantic Club was more dependent than the others on convenience gamblers looking to play for a few hours, then drive or ride the bus back home. It struggled further as many of its best customers forsook it for gambling halls closer to their houses.
Its owners, Colony Capital LLC, a Los Angeles hedge fund, paid more than a half billion dollars for it in 2005.
It searched in vain for a purchaser for the past three years, before inking a deal in December 2012 to sell itself to the PokerStars website for $15 million. But that deal fell apart within months because of concerns over whether the website's management could qualify for a casino license in New Jersey amid an unresolved indictment against the company's founder.
Dealer Anthony Beauford, wearing a red Atlanta Falcons Michael Vick football jersey on his last day of work, hugged friends and well-wishers before tallying the chips on his table as they bade him goodbye.
"Don't say goodbye," he admonished them. "Just say, "See ya.' Cause I hope I will someday."