ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.
Phil Juliano was looking at Bally’s casino through rose-colored glass. Or more accurately, rose-colored glass flecked with jarringly out-of-place blue squares.
Walking along the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, he looked up at the glass-encased tower of what once was the hottest and most successful casino in the seaside gambling resort. What he saw annoyed him greatly, everywhere a broken window had once been.
“I said, ‘That’s it,” recalled Juliano, an executive with the casino’s new owners, a Rhode Island based company that used to be called Twin River but has since adopted the Bally’s name for the entire company. “By the middle of July, every window in that grand, iconic hotel tower that was fixed in a blue color will be rose. It’s symbolic of what we intend to do. Under this leadership, this place will sparkle.”
What Bally’s intends to do is nothing short of bringing a comatose casino back to life in perhaps the most cutthroat gambling market in America. Bally’s for years had been a lesser priority of former owners Caesars Entertainment, which lavished attention and reinvestment cash on two higher-profile Atlantic City casinos, Harrah’s and Caesars.
As its resources declined, so did its performance. Last year, which saw casinos closed for 3 1/2 months due to the coronavirus pandemic, Bally’s finished dead last among Atlantic City’s nine casinos in terms of the amount of money won from gamblers. Things were almost as bleak in 2019, before the pandemic hit, as Bally’s barely avoided finishing last.
As far back as 2014, when Caesars Entertainment closed the Showboat and the Atlantic Club amid a severe slowdown that saw four casinos go belly-up, then-chairman Gary Loveman none-too-subtly indicated that Bally’s was in danger of meeting a similar end, telling The Associated Press, “We need to make money there.”
As it turned out, Bally’s outlasted Loveman, but was trapped in a downward spiral.
Enter Providence-based Twin River Worldwide Holdings, which was a smaller regional casino company in April 2020 when it bought Bally’s for $25 million, along with casinos in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
The company later bought the Bally’s name, and embarked on a buying spree of gambling, technology, and content companies in its quest to become a perfectly integrated mix of in-person and online gambling and entertainment. The company owns 14 casinos, with acquisitions in Las Vegas and Pennsylvania awaiting approval by regulators.
Bally’s Atlantic City is a big part of those plans. Last November, it promised New Jersey gambling regulators it would invest at least $90 million into the casino-hotel over the next five years.
“Things were in bad shape,” said Juliano, an Atlantic City native who is the company’s executive vice president of casino operations and chief marketing officer. “We have a mission to bring this place up to the standard we have set for ourselves wherever we operate. We are extremely confident we will bring this property back to a respectable place.”
Jane Bokunewicz, coordinator of a gambling and tourism institute at Stockton University, said Bally’s has an opportunity to reintroduce itself to a market that has known it since 1979.
“Like any newly opened property, Bally’s will benefit from public curiosity about what is new and different,” she said. “Customers will be eager to see what has changed under the new ownership.”
As for challenges, Bokunewicz said, Bally’s “will need to get up to speed quickly regarding online casino and sports betting offerings if they want to keep up with their neighbors.”
Early priorities include a renovation of the casino floor, new slot machines and table games.
A walk through the casino on Monday saw electricians working on long strands of wiring, handymen removing outdated signs from walls, and old slot machine stools sitting in a soon-to-be discarded pile. Workers with spray bottles and wipes seemed to be everywhere.
The company is adding restaurants, including a well-received Italian eatery that opened a few weeks ago. And its complete inventory of more than 1,200 hotel rooms will be redone as well. A FanDuel-branded sports book opened last winter.
And Juliano promises entertainment will return in a bigger way to Bally’s, including a July 3 Motown review in its 1,200-seat ballroom, as well as live music on the sand at its popular beach bar.