The Borgata
The BorgataThe Borgata

The Casino File: Tracing the roots of Borgata as Atlantic City marks three milestones over the next 7 days

As June melts into July, a stroll down Memory Lane recalls a pivotal moment of the legal-gambling era.

Whether the reason is divine in nature or simply cosmic coincidence is beyond our ability to ascertain. What we do know is that the seven days between June 25 and July 1 boasts three-count ‘em, three—red-letter dates in Atlantic City’s legal-casino-gaming history.

The first two are a celebrity-packed party that raged at Trump Plaza Casino Hotel on June 27, 1988, and the introduction of poker on June 25, 1993. But the third one is inarguably the most significant; its consequences reverberate even as you read this.

On July 1, 1995, disgraced casino mogul Steve Wynn gathered the press at what is now Jim Whalen Boardwalk Hall to announce what would clearly launch a new era for the oceanside gambling capital: His plans for a Las Vegas-style mega-resort he was going to build on a piece of city-owned land known then as the “H-Tract.” Incidentally, the city had already agreed to sell Wynn the land for one dollar.

Wynn had built and opened--in late 1980-- the Golden Nugget on the western end of the Boardwalk casino strip. In 1987, he sold it to Bally’s Entertainment (which wasn’t affiliated with Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corp., current owner of Bally’s Atlantic City) for $440 million. He used that to help finance The Mirage, the game-changing Las Vegas pleasure dome that opened in late 1989 and ushered in the modern era of casino mega-properties.

Six years later, The Mirage had made Wynn enough money that he eyed a return to Atlantic City, which, at that point, remained a giant in the then-burgeoning national gambling industry and was still years away from its revenue-generating peak.

On that early-summer day, Wynn, surrounded by artists’ renderings, told the assembled media members of his plans to bring to the H-Tract a $1 billion ($1.7 billion in 2021 money) complex that had been dubbed “Le Jardin.” For those of you who don’t speak French, “Le Jardin” means “The Garden;” the bigger-than-the-Trump-Taj Mahal facility would sport a floral theme via acres of exotic flowers and plants. While numerous tycoons—including entertainer Merv Griffin and Japanese-restaurant entrepreneur Rocky Aoki—had previously trumpeted big plans for AyCee properties but failed to build anything, there was little doubt that Wynn would provide AyCee with a next-generation casino-hotel destination.

But there was a catch—make that a $330 million catch: Wynn made it known that as much as he’d love to bring his latest vision to town, it wouldn’t be possible unless the state financed the lion’s share of a high-speed road that would bring customers from the Atlantic City Expressway directly to Le Jardin’s front door.

Not surprisingly, Wynn’s request wasn’t met with universal expressions of gratitude and support. And, not surprisingly, the project’s loudest and most prominent opponent was Donald Trump, at that time the reigning monarch of Atlantic City’s gaming realm with three casino-hotels bearing his name.

The man who, 21 years later, would be elected POTUS 45—and whose holdings included what was then called Trump’s Castle (ironically, today it’s the Golden Nugget, although Wynn has no stake in it) and which overlooked the H-Tract, complained that such a highway would be nothing more than a private driveway for Wynn’s casino.

Lawsuits and media-borne feuds ensued for several years until Wynn, whose attention had turned to his latest Vegas palace, the ultra-luxe Bellagio Las Vegas—washed his hands of the project. In 1998, two Las Vegas entities, Boyd Gaming and a new outfit called MGM/Mirage, announced that they would join forces to build a then-unnamed mega-resort on the H-Tract, which was rechristened with the far-more ritzy moniker, “Renaissance Pointe.”

A year later, the Atlantic City Connector—which ultimately included access to the existing Marina-district properties (the Castle and what is now Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City) opened. Four years after that—late in the evening of on July 3, 2003--Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa opened its doors and soon established itself as the most successful Atlantic City gambling den of all time.

It also changed the local gambling industry with its emphasis on luxury, celebri-chef-fronted restaurants and contemporary entertainment rather than traditional production shows and headliners of the Don Rickles/Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme ilk.

Today, Borgata remains Atlantic City’s signature casino-hotel, although Ocean Casino Resort and Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City have provided the Big B legitimate competition in large part by following the game plan Borgata first conjured.

But it all started on that early July day 26 years ago this week.

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