ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The casino formerly known as the Atlantic City Hilton will become The Atlantic Club Casino Hotel next month.
The name change is the easy part. More difficult will be trying to attract enough gamblers to keep the doors open past the fall in a casino that has been teetering on the edge of disaster for years.
But the casino's owners, Los Angeles hedge fund Colony Capital LLC, is betting that a new business strategy targeting local residents with limited entertainment budgets will succeed where past efforts to compete with newer, bigger casinos failed. The new direction entails lower minimum bets at table games — mostly $5 to $10 a pop — and lower-denomination slot machines for low-rollers.
How low? About 70 percent of the slot machines will be penny slots.
"If you've got a couple hundred dollars, you can play here for a couple hours instead of a couple minutes," said Michael Frawley, the casino's chief operating officer. "The desire to go out and have a good time is highlighted more than ever because of the problems we're having with the economy."
The casino was most recently known as ACH after a licensing deal with Hilton hotels ended last year, necessitating the end of its tenure as the Atlantic City Hilton. It came very close to closing after a two-year effort to find a buyer fell through.
The Hilton had stopped paying its mortgage in 2009, and executives told state regulators last fall that it had come close to running out of money.
But under a rescue plan worked out last fall, Colony agreed to pump $15 million in cash into the casino to prop it up. The casino also received $9.3 million in cash from insurance proceeds stemming from an August 2009 flooding claim there.
In return, Colony let lenders foreclose on two casinos in Mississippi: Bally's Tunica and Resorts Tunica. The transaction wiped out the mortgage debt for what was then called ACH.
The name change will take effect March 13, with cards, dice and gambling chips bearing the new name and logo. New signs will be erected on the Boardwalk building by the last week in April.
The Atlantic Club plans to partner strongly with local businesses, allowing gamblers to use their accumulated comps from the casino for goods and services from local merchants. The casino plans an increase in its overall promotional and comp spending, though exact amounts have not yet been determined.
The casino is reducing its slot machines from 1,850 now to about 1,500 and its table games from 86 to 50. The casino floor will be redesigned, including new carpeting, and restaurant prices throughout the casino will be lowered.
The casino will remain at 816 hotel rooms. Its current staffing level of 1,800 to 1,900 workers will stay the same, Frawley said. It laid off 150 employees in November, mostly from table games.
The new strategy represents a 180-degree turnaround for the casino, which tried to keep pace with new, larger resort casinos like the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Harrah's Resort Atlantic City and the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort — and got creamed. ACH lost $19 million to $20 million in 2011, Frawley said.
The casino took in just under $9 million from gamblers in all of last year, a decrease of 5.6 percent from 2010. In contrast, the Borgata took in nearly $56 million.
The casino has been hurt by the changing nature of Atlantic City's casino market, in which the day-tripping convenience gamblers that once were its bread-and-butter have largely fled to casinos closer to home in Pennsylvania and New York. Frawley acknowledges that the casino was built for a different age, which is why it will get smaller and more affordable.
In September, the state Division of Gaming Enforcement wrote a report to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission expressing concern over ACH's financial stability. In approving the rescue plan, the casino commission obtained a commitment from the casino to stay open through October 2012. But Frawley said The Atlantic Club plans to be in business long after that.
"Oct. 31 is not an apocalyptic date for us," he said. "We see ourselves operating well beyond that."
To underscore the point, The Atlantic Club has put up billboards at some of the entrances to Atlantic City with the slogan "The Fat Lady Ain't Singing."
"It's a tongue-in-cheek thing," Frawley said. "We're absolutely not dead, and we're not going anywhere."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC.