Jack Morris, CEO of Edgewood Properties, is part of the ownership group that acquired the former Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City before reopening it in June 2018 as the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. — Photo by Aaron Houston
By Joshua Burd
Five years in, the work has only just begun for the team behind the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.
That’s according to Jack Morris, the real estate magnate and co-owner of the boardwalk resort, who said the partnership plans to continue the types of investments that have defined the property since it opened in 2018. That includes everything from renovated suites and a new high-end lounge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to an ongoing focus on rehabilitating and employing former nonviolent offenders in the city.
“That’s really what initially got us involved in Atlantic City — to see how we could help a city that was so important and iconic,” said Morris, the CEO of Edgewood Properties. “And just to be part of that revitalization is near and dear to my heart.”
Spanning more than 4 million square feet on 17 acres, the gaming hall opened its doors in late June 2018 under a partnership that includes Hard Rock International and the Morris and Jingoli families, which had acquired and spent some $500 million to transform what was the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal property. It has since been one of the city’s top-performing casinos, recording nearly $600 million in net revenue and a $128 million gross operating profit in 2022, according to the state Division of Gaming Enforcement, trailing only the Borgata in both categories.
Morris, a national developer based in Piscataway, reflected recently on the five-year anniversary while echoing a mantra of wanting to be a long-term holder in the South Jersey resort town. That was evident in the fact that the property announced in 2021, just three years after opening, that it planned to spend at least $20 million on upgrades that included suite renovations, additional slot machines and table games and other amenities.
And, for a structure with 2,000 rooms and a vast footprint, Morris noted that some parts of the resort were left unrenovated as the partnership raced to open in summer 2018, some 18 months after that they had acquired it from billionaire Carl Icahn. That has left room for ongoing improvements, such as the addition of a plum lounge inside the former Scores space on the second floor, overlooking the boardwalk.
“There are no other casinos that I’m aware of that are on the ocean and have such beautiful views as we do in Atlantic City,” Morris said. “And we’re taking advantage of that. So we’re continuing to upgrade the property.”
Ownership plans to invest more than $50 million in additional renovations this year, he added, as “you continue to make changes based on the market and where you think you need to spend money.” That’s not to mention an entertainment lineup at the casino’s 7,000-seat Etess Arena that has included Sting, Janet Jackson and Pitbull, along with Kevin Hart and other performers.
“If you don’t continue to do that, you’ll see what happens and what had happened to some of the other properties because they weren’t willing to put more money in,” Morris said. “They just wanted to take money out — and that’s the opposite of what we’ve done as partners. … We continue to put more money in.”
Equally important, the Hard Rock team has worked to maintain the commitment it made to its employees and to the community at large since it entered the market, Morris said. He recalls being part of a team with Joe and Michael Jingoli, Hard Rock International CEO Jim Allen and Seminole tribe leaders who met with faith-based groups and other organizations soon after their acquisition, pledging to work collaboratively and have a locally anchored workforce. Those conversations continue, Morris said, as the groups meet two to four times a year and as recently as late May.
He also pointed to ongoing efforts, led by the Jingoli family, to focus on employment opportunities for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, along with other workforce development programs for those who would otherwise have trouble finding a job.
Meantime, Hard Rock Atlantic City announced earlier this year that thousands of union and non-union team members would receive a share of more than $10 million in bonuses. That followed news that Hard Rock was recognized as one of America’s Best Large Employers by Forbes for the seventh year in a row.
“I think that’s why we have such great success at Hard Rock — because we have such loyal employees that give our customers a great experience,” Morris said. “The employees do that because they are very loyal to ownership, and for all that we’ve given them, they continue to give back to us. And I think that’s the difference.”
That’s not to dismiss the social and economic issues that have loomed over the city for decades. While it may not be a popular subject, Morris said “it’s important that people recognize the problem that we have in this country with homelessness and behavioral health.” That includes Atlantic City, and he expects Hard Rock and the property’s individual owners to continue to fund treatment programs and facilities, hoping that other stakeholders follow suit.
“People have to start being more responsible and helping people — and Atlantic City is probably a good place for some of that to happen,” said Morris, who also chairs RWJBarnabas Health, the state’s largest health care network.
Still, Morris said he was heartened by the other investments that have materialized in Atlantic City over the past five years, from the arrival of South Jersey Gas as a corporate anchor to the development of Stockton University’s new campus in the city’s Chelsea section. He also pointed to the success of Hard Rock’s neighbor and competitor, Ocean Casino Resort, and the $100 million Island Waterpark that’s set to open at the iconic Showboat property.
“I hope people continue to come to Atlantic City because it has so much to offer,” Morris said. “We’ve just scratched the surface, in my opinion. I think there are just so many opportunities, and I hope people can see that and make an investment in Atlantic City.”