ATLANTIC CITY — For years, ARTeriors has been locating its twice-yearly edgy art installations in empty Atlantic City buildings in sometimes sketchy parts of town. This year, it chose Showboat.
Was this some kind of shade-thowing toward Bart Blatstein’s enigmatic, not-quite-a-concept hotel, the by-default standout of an otherwise moribund investment portfolio in Atlantic City?
Was this a punchline about the former Mardi Gras-themed casino Blatstein purchased in 2016 for $23 million and reopened with a curtain of Atlantic City postcard images strung across the property to block off the empty casino floor?
But ARTeriors, open weekends through April, and Blatstein, commuting back and forth from Philly, may be onto something.
For starters, Blatstein will never follow the likes of Denver investor Bruce Deifik, who blew through $70 million of his personal fortune to reopen the old Revel and was hounded back to Denver by hedge funds.
Showboat, with an assortment of Vegan meets Horror-Con meets Mid-Atlantic BBQ meets Boxing events, an empty but still recognizable casino floor for convention space, and a low bar for entry, is so far pulling its own weird weight.
Or so says Blatstein.
“My world is at Showboat,” he says.
Outside of popular third-floor restaurants (including Buddakan and Continental), and the picturesque wedding venue One Atlantic, the Playground is now a ghost mall, abandoned by Apple, Tiffany’s, and 50 other stores, anchored by “It’s Sugar,” a place where Victoria, Tommy, and Willie (Secret, Bahama, and Wet) are the only ones left to play.
Blatstein’s takeover of Garden Pier has done little more than evict the city’s art and history museums, though he told casino regulators last month he’s seeking environmental permits to build out the pier to 600 feet. He is also sitting on several parcels in the Inlet.
He’s bullish on the Boat, as he calls it. He views the sprawling property like a mini-Northern Liberties, the neighborhood he famously jump-started: a place with near-forgotten charm waiting for, well, pretty much anything.
“We’re killing it with events,” he said in a telephone interview driving home from Atlantic City.
Recently approved to pursue a casino license, Blatstein says he plans to build a gaming and sports betting facility on the sand lot adjacent to Showboat. He’s planning to transform one of Showboat’s towers into apartments.
At Showboat, Blatstein has gathered in everyone from the itinerant ARTeriors; the BBQ’ers; and, perhaps fittingly for a place reviewers still noted for a “Shining vibe," the New Jersey Horror Con and Film Festival.
(“If you’re an abandoned sites aficionado, stay here, but don’t expect to make it up the public elevator in one piece, or to have a trash can in your room/bathroom,” noted Justin K. of Houston in a January Yelp review).
ARTeriors jumped at the chance for the space, enough for seven artists, an oddly shaped room filled with the ruins of the old Showboat, which closed in 2014, including chandeliers that quickly were claimed for their art.
Belinda Manning’s powerful installation, titled Whitewash, focuses on Brown v. Board of Education, and psychological testing done with children using dolls of different races. Another, Billy Joe Michel, re-created the trailer of her youth inside that forgotten Showboat storage area.
“The ceiling has three different types, so many vents and hoses running out,” Zach Katzen, ARTeriors program manager, said of what looks like part of an old ballroom located behind a wall decorated with Mardi Gras revelers. “We said leave it. Leave it rough.”
“It felt like it went with the vision for us," Kazten said. “This property, this room, this whole idea is in transition."
“You walk down on the convention floor and they still have the remnants of the casino,” he said. “You remember it there, but then next to it is a barbecue grill or an anime convention or a horror convention.”
Blatstein is equally bullish on the Showboat, where he’s opened a 24-hour state-of-the-art gym called Matrixx in the space where they used to store linens.
He says Showboat in the next 16 months has 85 events booked and ready to roll right through those big roll-up doors that allow easy access and unloading. Let the good times roll up!
The former casino floor, at 100,000 contiguous square feet, is the largest private convention floor in Atlantic City, Blatstein says. Like the artists, Blatstein likes that it bears remnants of old slot machines, a touch of neon memorabilia driving the decor. (M.T. Bates of Horror Con raved about the layout and high ceilings: “Terror in Atlantic City leads to an Amazing weekend.”)
“I happen to like it,” Blatstein said. “The event producers like it. It’s character. It’s embracing its past. People don’t want sterile.”
The old high-end slots parlor is being retrofitted to be a boutique venue for boxing, which has popped up at Showboat at the old House of Blues and on the casino floor. A recent fight event in the parlor drew a packed, high-energy crowd.
Blatstein won’t comment on the demise of the Playground, or the fact that 56 of its stores are empty, according to a helpful directory of shops. (Though the stools at Wet Willies were filled with White-Russian slushie sippers one weekday afternoon, proving that alcohol will always sell.)
Blatstein owns the mall that sits atop a pier itself owned by Caesars, which is facing financial uncertainty. Caesars originated the high-end concept at the Pier, but lost interest in recent years. Store owners complained Caesars did not offer comps that sent customers to the Pier, and parking has always been a problem.
The Playground seems destined for a buyer, perhaps one who can take advantage of tax breaks through the state’s opportunity zone.
Meanwhile, Showboat, a profitable and loved casino before Caesars shut it down, is finding its way. This summer, Matrixx membership includes access to Showboat’s outdoor pool. Surf Bar will put out comfy chairs on the Boardwalk, the Epic Comic Con-ers and the vegans will arrive. If nothing else, it’s an easy setup, if also an easy punchline.