New NJ casino-owner known for offbeat marketing

Oct 23, 2010 7:36 AM

His efforts to root out mob influence in Las Vegas gambling halls were immortalized in the Martin Scorsese film "Casino." 

As head of Atlantic City's Tropicana Casino and Resort, he pitted a tic-tac-toe-playing chicken against customers and used billboards of Fidel Castro to hype a Cuban-themed shopping and dining mall.

To promote the opening of an Indiana racetrack casino, he hired a Barack Obama lookalike who pitched the gambling hall as a fiscal stimulus package, knowing the White House would object and generate free publicity.

Now Dennis Gomes is buying Resorts Atlantic City, the nation's first casino outside Nevada and one whose fitness to operate he once investigated as a gambling regulator. When Gomes takes over the financially ailing casino in December, one thing is certain: folks should expect the unexpected.

"One of the ways you can tell an idea is really great is when everyone you talk to tells you it won't work," Gomes said.

That philosophy may help explain why Gomes and his business partner, New York developer Morris Bailey, are taking on the monumental challenge of reviving Resorts, New Jersey's first casino and one of its most endangered.

An old building with a clientele to match, the 942-room Resorts fell behind in the casino arms race as newer, larger casinos expanded to 2,000 rooms or more and added amenities to attract a younger, hipper crowd.

The opening of casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania, popular with senior citizen slots players who make up a good portion of Resorts' customer base, hurt even more. When the recession hit, Resorts stopped paying its mortgage. It last made a payment in October 2008 and by December 2009, former owners Colony Capital LLC and minority partner Nicholas Ribis had two choices: turn it over to lenders or close the doors.

Those lenders, including Wells Fargo on behalf of Credit Suisse First Boston Mortgage Securities Corp., struck a deal to sell the casino to Gomes and Bailey for just $35 million — by far the lowest price ever paid for an Atlantic City casino. By comparison, the upscale Borgata cost over $1 billion when it opened in 2003.

Gomes' plan to revive Resorts involves rebranding it with a "Boardwalk Empire" theme, capitalizing on the hit HBO series about Prohibition-era Atlantic City. Resorts occupies a 1920s building that was a luxury hotel in the days of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, Atlantic City's real-life political and rackets boss.

Dealers, cocktail servers, bellhops and others will dress in 1920s-period costumes, music from that period will play, and even the drinks and casino shows will have a roaring '20s theme.

It's the latest in a string of offbeat ideas Gomes has used to promote casinos.

He is perhaps best known for using a live chicken to play tac-tac-toe against customers in 2002 when he ran the Tropicana Casino and Resort.

"People were actually lining up to play tic-tac-toe against a chicken — and they almost always lost," said Mark Giannantonio, Tropicana's current president and a vice president there at the time. "It was a lot of fun. One thing you can always say about Dennis is he's very innovative when it comes to marketing."