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Distressed AC casinos selling at bargain-bin rates

The recession and the mountains of debt that casinos in the nation's second-largest gambling market have amassed has driven the value of some gambling halls to bargain-basement prices.
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The recession and the mountains of debt that casinos in the nation's second-largest gambling market have amassed has driven the value of some gambling halls to bargain-basement prices.In recent weeks, the Tropicana Casino and Resort was sold for $200 million of deeply discounted debt. This week, Donald Trump, his daughter Ivanka and Dallas-based Beal Bank reached a deal to pay $100 million for all three casinos owned by Trump Entertainment Resorts, subject to bankruptcy court approval.The sales are yet another symptom of the woes facing the casino industry nationwide.Atlantic City and Las Vegas have been hard hit by the economic downturn, which has led gamblers to keep a tight rein on their wallets."Clearly, this is a time of rampant pessimism regarding both Atlantic City and the gaming industry,' said Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming group, a New Jersey-based casino consultant. "Rampant pessimism translates into a buyer's market, which means that those who have nerves of steel and longtime horizons can find bargains."Atlantic City at some point will be poised for a turnaround once capital markets open up again," he said. "If that happens, these would prove to be extraordinary bargains."But the purchase price is only part of the equation, according to Joe Weinert, Spectrum's senior vice president."It is critical that any new owner make meaningful capital investment in the hotel rooms, restaurants, bars, entertainment venues, spas, shops and public spaces," he said. "It is these non-gaming, resort-oriented products that will allow Atlantic City to differentiate itself from the regional, gaming-centric competition that has stolen a significant chunk of Atlantic City's casino business over the last two-plus years."Donald Trump said he, Ivanka and the bank might end up spending considerably more than $100 million on the casinos if a judge approves the purchase."The gaming industry is in serious trouble," Donald Trump told The Associated Press."It's a much more competitive business. A lot of companies are going to have to do what other companies are doing and what we're doing _ changing the debt structure," he said. "And there's only one way to do that."There are other ways to cut debt without going through bankruptcy. Casino companies including Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage and Pinnacle Entertainment have refinanced debt, but bankruptcy was the most effective way for Trump Entertainment Resorts to shed more than two-thirds of its debt. The newly private company would carry a debt load of about $486 million, down from as much as $1.7 billion before the bankruptcy filing.The deal is far from a certainty, however. Bondholders, who stand to get nothing, are vowing to challenge it in court. That could force Trump to up the ante on the casinos.Las Vegas-based Station Casinos is battling creditors in bankruptcy court as well. It filed for Chapter 11 protection last month when the recession dried up its cash flows, and it had difficulty making its loan payments.Atlantic City is in the third year of a revenue decline that began when the first slots parlors opened in the Philadelphia suburbs in November 2006, draining away some of the resort's most reliable and profitable customers.Gamblers who didn't want to hop on a plane and fly to Las Vegas once had little choice but to drive to Atlantic City, or to American Indian-run casinos in Connecticut. Now, however, they can gamble much closer to home at one of eight slots parlors.Northern New Jersey gamblers can now go to a slots parlor at Yonkers Raceway just over the border in New York.Atlantic City's casinos make most of their money from slots. For the first half of this year, the resort's 11 casinos won $1.94 billion, down 15.3 percent from the same period last year.The fire-sale began in June when a group of investors led by billionaire Carl Icahn bought Atlantic City's Tropicana out of bankruptcy court by swapping $200 million of debt they had bought in return for ownership of the casino.But the investors actually paid only 27 cents on the dollar for that debt. The deal is expected to close by the end of the year.