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Donald Trump vs. Steve Wynn: The Inside Story of Their ‘War at the Shore’

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief
Daily Ticker

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Fans of Boardwalk Empire know that Atlantic City was a hotbed of intrigue, corruption and drama during the Prohibition era.

In The War at the Shore, Richard "Skip" Bronson tells the real-life story of the intrigue, corruption and drama that gripped Atlantic City in the 1990s.

As with Boardwalk Empire, Bronson's book is filled with mobsters, corrupt politicians, and larger than life characters, most notably Donald Trump and Steve Wynn.

Today, Bronson is chairman and founder of U.S. Digital Gaming. But back in the late 1990s he spent five years as Wynn's point man in Atlantic City as Mirage tried to develop an abandoned site that would require building a tunnel through a residential neighborhood (the Brigantine Connector), approvals by myriad public officials and billions of dollars of capital.

But those were not the biggest obstacles standing in the way of what eventually became the Borgata Hotel & Spa.

"Donald was the dominant casino owner in Atlantic City [at the time] and wasn't keen on having Steve Wynn coming into his sandbox," Bronson recalls. "There was some bad blood starting off. Sometimes when you get into a big fight, the fight gets bigger than the initial issue and it got personal. It got mean and nasty."

Think of it as "Jersey Shore" but with a lot less fist-pumping and a lot more money on the line.

In those days, the battle was played out through the media and the proxy of local politicians, who often played Mirage and Trump off each other. As much as "War at the Shore" is a passion play about two casino moguls, it's also an instructive and disturbing lesson into how local politics really works. (I suppose maybe things have gotten better since the late 1990s, but I doubt it.)

In the end, Mirage was acquired by MGM (MGM), which went on to develop the site, originally known as H-Tract. When the Borgata opened in July 2002, in introduced Las Vegas style glamor to Atlantic City and quickly became the most profitable casino in Atlantic City. According to Bronson, the Borgata has the highest return on investment of any non-Indian casino in America.

And, in the end, Wynn and Trump set aside their differences and are now friends, according to Bronson. "One of the great qualities Steve and Donald share: when they're in a war they will fight like you've never seen. But when it's over it's over."

The personal battle between the business titans may be over but the war over Atlantic City rages.

In 2011, New Jersey suffered the largest decrease in revenue among U.S. gaming markets, down 7%, according to The American Gaming Association's 2012 "State of the States" survey. At the same time, N.J. gaming employment fell nearly 4% to 32,823.

Bronson blames the expansion of casino gaming in Pennsylvania for A.C.'s declining revenue and doesn't seem too confident the new Revel resort and casino can dramatically change the trend. An over-supply of casinos is also a major culprit, says Bronson, who spent a career developing casino projects.

"I have to admit as a casino developer for the most part there's a glut of casino space in the U.S. today," he says. "What they need in Atlantic City are major attractions - a big retail experience, something like Cirque du Soleil, major sports teams...because gambling in and of itself is no longer enough to get people to drive hours at a time to go to anyplace."

Sounds like another chapter in Atlantic City's often-tragic, but always compelling story is ready to be written.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com