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Meruelo Group racing to improve Trump Plaza for tourist season

February 21, 2013|By Roger Vincent
  • Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, N.J., opened to fanfare in 1984 but has struggled financially in recent years.
Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, N.J., opened to fanfare in 1984 but has struggled… (Wayne Parry, AP )

The low-profile Downey company that is buying the aging landmark Trump Plaza hotel and casino in Atlantic City, N.J., for a bargain-basement $20 million is scrambling to improve the place and obtain a gaming license in time for the warm-weather tourist season, a company executive said.

The Meruelo Group, which got its start selling pizzas in Latino neighborhoods in Southern California, has expanded into numerous businesses, including construction, engineering, real estate and private equity. Now it intends to become a player in the gaming industry, President Xavier Gutierrez said.

The acquisition of Trump Plaza was announced last week and is expected to close in May.

Meruelo Group already owns the Grand Sierra Resort & Casino in Reno, which has helped prepare the company to take on the challenge of restoring Trump Plaza’s luster, Gutierrez said.

Long-term improvements could cost $100 million. Changes might include connecting the property to a nearby open-air outlet mall and giving it an Asian-theme makeover.

“The Trump name has to come off this year,” Gutierrez said, but a new name has yet to be selected.

Developer Donald Trump built the 900-room hotel and casino at a cost of $210 million and opened it to fanfare in 1984. It struggled in recent years despite its central spot on the famous Boardwalk and has been one of the worst-performing casinos in Atlantic City in terms of revenue.

Troubled properties in prime locations are at the top of the Meruelo Group’s shopping list, Gutierrez said. The company’s strategy is to invest in physical improvements and endeavor to improve operations to create profits.

In New Jersey, the company has to decide quickly what to do first to make Trump Plaza better this spring.

“We’re trying to figure out how to get the biggest bang for our buck in the next 90 days,” he said.

Atlantic City has suffered from the rise of competition from Indian casinos and other gambling outlets, but Gutierrez predicts the city will come back into favor.

“It’s a great destination getaway” for New Yorkers and other Easterners, he said. “There are still very few places where you can go to casinos on the seaside.”

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