Thursday, June 29, 2006

Once Tacky Resort City Gets More Class

By Geoff Mulvihill, Associated Press Writer

Once Tacky Resort City Gets More Class With High-End Shops, Dining

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) -- Move over kitsch; step aside, tackiness. Make a little more room for the newest feature of this resort city: upscale shops and eateries.
A Tiffany & Co. store and a Wolfgang Puck restaurant are arriving this week at high-end Atlantic City developments that are redefining a city once known for sprawling discount buffets and yesteryear's lounge acts.

The emphasis on luxury comes as Atlantic City seeks to buttress its nearly $5 billion gambling industry against increasing competition from Indian casinos and neighboring states, especially Pennsylvania, which is slated to open its first slots parlors later this year.

The first retailers at The Pier at Caesars opened Tuesday. By the end of the year, it's expected to have 90 stores and 10 restaurants.

While some of the stores are standard mall fare -- think Victoria's Secret, Gymboree and the Apple Store -- some are super high-end. A whole level is dedicated to couture, where the floors are blue terrazzo marble and the shops sell Burberry clothes, Tiffany jewelry and Tourneau watches.

The gleaming, 900-foot pier is in stark contrast to the nearby Boardwalk, where shopping can be done at stores that advertise "Everything's 99 cents" and where seagulls circle waiting for people munching slices of pizza to drop a crust or pepperoni.

The developer of the Pier, Sheldon Gordon, is the man behind the Forum Shops, the Las Vegas shopping and entertainment complex which is seen as a key part of the transformation of that city from a gambling mecca to a place where people could spend plenty of money even if they didn't want to gamble.

He said Tuesday that his $200 million Atlantic City project, which is connected by a skyway over the Boardwalk to Caesars Atlantic City, could have the same effect on the New Jersey Shore. "That is to change the whole attitude," he said.

Atlantic City today has more going for it than Las Vegas did when the Forum opened there 14 years ago, he said.

The resort has been heading more upscale for three years, since the Borgata opened with not just a casino and hotel rooms, but also a spa and restaurants run by celebrity chefs such as Philadelphia's Susanna Foo.

While other casinos have themes such as the Wild West and Ancient Rome, the Borgata emanates luxury and hipness. Scantily clad waitresses patrol the casino floor, the rooms have showers built for two and tour buses are not courted for their normally low-rent business.

Since the Borgata opened, there's been a building boom, with several of the city's 12 casinos getting upgrades and adding restaurants run by celebrity chefs.

On Friday, the Borgata is scheduled to open a $200 million expansion, featuring restaurants by Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay and Michael Mina, along with a second night club, an upscale food court and a new 85-table poker room.

Borgata spokesman Michael Facenda said the casino realized soon after it opened that there was more demand for upscale living in Atlantic City, so the expansion started quickly.

On the Boardwalk on Tuesday, Marcia Wilhelm, 62, and Joseph Gotto, 81, who regularly make gambling day trips from Elsmere, Del., said they personally did not have much use for shops peddling couture or high-end restaurants.

"It's better than having it fall down the way it was," Wilhelm said, pointing to the new shops, which replaced a dilapidated building. "It will be a nice thing to walk through."

And if Las Vegas is the role model for the new Atlantic City, where there's more to do than gamble, there's another touch at the Pier that fits right in: the city's first wedding chapel.