Exit Trump, enter Hard Rock; Casinos in Cuba again?

Hard Rock International is putting its money where its mouth is, judging from the preview it gave of the Hard Rocked Trump Taj Mahal. The most obvious changes will be on the exterior, where all the tiki-tacky Trump theming will be removed — no more minarets. But the rethinking will extend to the casino floor. “The narrowness and all the current obstructions will be gone. We’ll completely redesign the casino floor to create a true entertainment destination, not just a gambling destination,” Allen said. Also rethought will be all the hotel rooms. The latter will be eviscerated and redone from scratch.

The remaking of the Taj has already got Atlantic Citizens more excited than the old Trump look did. “Let’s get the people down here,” said one. “If we have enough people and the economy gets better maybe this could do something.” Added another, “There have been a lot of closings, so options have been limited. I really like the idea of a Hard Rock casino.”

Capitalizing on its brand, Hard Rock will build two, 7,000-seat concert venues and a 400-seat cabaret. Of course, the décor will be redone in signature Hard Rock style — i.e., more rock-and-roll
souvenirs than you can shake a Fender Stratocaster at. Gov. Chris Christie (R) showed up for the rollout and even had the nerve to take credit for the current state of affairs in Atlantic City, saying, “The investment is great news for the city and the state. And we are confident Hard Rock will do this the right way. It’s going to have a significant impact on the local economy.” The irony is that Hard Rock will be in the catbird seat for a Meadowlands casino, if New Jersey voters ever change their minds on that issue. So Hard Rock is being both Atlantic City’s enemy and friend in one fell swoop. Deftly played, sirs.

* Assuming the current administration doesn’t roll back Cuba policy to the Eisenhower era, there’s a hope that casino gambling will return to the island. Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Ted Piccone said, “We saw this in [Donald] Trump as a candidate himself when he initially said, ‘I don’t mind this policy toward Cuba; I think I could have gotten a better deal. But by the end of his campaign, he went to Miami and said, ‘We’ve got to roll all this back; isn’t it terrible what [Barack] Obama has done.’” Ah, nothing like a head planted firmly in the sand.

Piccone is quick to acknowledge that we’re dealing with a country where people drive antiquated cars and live under an autocratic Marxist regime. But we gladly do gaming business in Red China, so why should Cuba be any less palatable? The bigger problem seems to be that the Cuban government hasn’t looked favorably on casino-driven tourism, at least not yet. Heck, even the Trump Organization has been permitted to come down to Havana and kick the tires on economic development.

“They do want to build up resorts on the higher end — luxury marinas and golfing and eco-adventure and that kind of thing — and this city has tremendous experience at that kind of activity. So if you just take out the gaming element, yes, I think there’s tremendous opportunity,” Piccone says. In other words, if casino companies want to get into the Cuban market it will almost certainly have to be with the resort-only model like the one MGM Resorts International is pursuing in China and Dubai. Also, tourism from the U.S. remains constrained. Finally, with Raul Castro due to step down in 2018 (when he’ll be a spry 88 years old), perhaps it’s best to wait and see what a new generation of Cuban leaders sees as the future of their country. And if they offered Trump a casino concession, he’d be there in a heartbeat (or just a step behind Sheldon Adelson.)

* So the NFL is softening up on Las Vegas, is it? Think again. It’s looking into sanctions against current and former players — most notably Marshawn Lynch and James Lynch — for taking part in an arm-wrestling tournament at MGM Grand. “Had we been asked in advance if this was acceptable, we would have indicated that it was in direct violation of the gambling policy,” said Vice President of Communications Joe Lockhart. A portion of the winnings will be donated to charity but that doesn’t change the fact that the players’ arm strength was being bet upon. If you want to see what all the fuss was about, tune into CBS on May 27-28 — assuming that the league doesn’t strong-arm one of its main broadcasting partners into canceling the telecast.

* After Columbia Sussex hexed the entertainment program at the Tropicana Las Vegas, it’s become the place shows go to die. New owner Penn National Gaming is looking to reverse that with a new business model built around event-driven programming, featuring acts like Wynonna & The Big Noise (April 28). Resident shows, including a new bunch of male stripteasers, will also be part of the package negotiated with presenter Red Mercury Entertainment, which also works with Westgate Las Vegas, another property where the entertainment slate is on life support. According to Trop Vice President of Entertainment, Daylife & Nightlife Howard Weiss, “the big bonus with [Red Mercury] is their relationship with all the brokers of all the shows on the Strip. We are seeing that big ticket sales drive 24 to 48 hours before the show, and that’s a benefit we didn’t have before.” Here’s hoping that Red Mercury is the cure for whatever ails the Trop’s showrooms.

* Opening the They’ve Got Some Nerve File we find Foxwoods Resorts Casino and Mohegan Sun. They promise that they’ll maintain their revenue-sharing agreement with the state if their satellite casino in East Windsor is allowed to open. That’s mighty big of them, considering that Connecticut is handing them a no-bid, off-reservation casino. Hewing to the terms of their compact with the Nutmeg State is the least they could do. Incidentally, a rival bill in the Connecticut Lege would create an open-bidding process for that third casino. S&G endorses this common-sense solution.

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