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NJ gaming regulators want Atlantic City investment, lifting of deed restrictions for Caesars, Eldorado merger

ATLANTIC CITY — Should state gaming regulators approve the proposed merger of Eldorado Resorts Inc. and Caesars Entertainment Corp., the newly formed company will have to adhere to several requirements, including lifting all deed restrictions on multiple Atlantic City properties and committing to significant capital investment over the next several years.

New Jersey is the final regulatory approval needed for the two gaming companies to merge into the country’s largest casino operator, a deal estimated to be worth nearly $17.3 billion. If finalized, the newly formed gaming company would keep the Caesars name — becoming Caesars Entertainment Inc. — and customer rewards program, while Eldorado senior management would oversee operations.

The state Division of Gaming Enforcement said it had “significant concerns” in respect to the proposed merger based on its investigation. A DGE report submitted to the Casino Control Commission before Wednesday’s hearing stated the regulatory agency would not provide a recommendation on approval until testimony had been completed.

DGE Caesars/Eldorado

Hearings will continue at 10 a.m. Thursday.

Eldorado currently operates Tropicana Atlantic City, while Caesars controls Bally’s Atlantic City, Caesars Atlantic City and Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City. Bally’s was recently sold for $25 million to Rhode Island-based Twin River Worldwide Holdings. The sale is pending approval.

The Casino Control Commission heard testimony Wednesday from Eldorado CEO Thomas Reeg, President and Chief Operating Officer Anthony Carano, Chief Financial Officer Bret Yunker, Steve Callender, senior vice president of Eastern regional operations, and Stephanie Lepori, chief administrative and accounting officer.

Reeg said conditions included in the DGE report were acceptable and would be carried out if the deal is approved.

“We wouldn’t be doing this transaction if we weren’t believers in Atlantic City because it’s so important to Caesars as it sits today,” he said.

Among the regulatory requirements is the removal of existing deed restrictions on three prior Caesars assets: Showboat Hotel Atlantic City, The Claridge hotel and the former Atlantic Club Casino Hotel.

Reeg also confirmed the creation of a $400 million capital expenditures trust account to be used over three years on improvements at Caesars, Harrah’s and Tropicana. If the Bally’s sale is not completed in a timely manner, an additional $125 million will be added to the trust account.

Additionally, Yunker said the new company has committed to reinvesting 5% of its annual revenue into Atlantic City properties.

Regulators noted that the Caesars portfolio in Atlantic City suffered from a lack of capital investment, particularly since the company emerged from a bankruptcy restructuring in 2015. Caesars has invested in room improvements at all three properties — most notably Harrah’s — but the renovations have not translated to increased revenues on the gaming side, regulators said.

“We understand that we acquire the positives and negatives of Caesars,” Reeg said. “And we know that Atlantic City and New Jersey have had some difficulties with a lack of investment from Caesars, chiefly in the past, and we understand why the conditions are there. We are absolutely committed to agreeing to the requirement.”

Carano, whose family founded Reno-based Eldorado, said the company’s learning curve upon entering the Atlantic City market with the purchase of Tropicana in 2018 and retention of current local leadership will allow for a smooth transition if the merger is approved. Callender; Jason Gregoric, general manager of Tropicana; Ron Baumann, regional president for Caesars’ three Atlantic City casinos; and Karie Hall, general manager of Bally’s, will all remain with the newly formed company, Carano said.

Also, Caesars CEO Tony Rodio, a longtime Atlantic City casino executive, will serve as a strategic advisor to Reeg. Rodio will develop and implement a capital expenditure program for the new company.

New Jersey regulators will consider multiple facets of the proposed merger, including the potential of undue economic concentration among Atlantic City’s nine casinos. Several of the state-imposed conditions are intended to alleviate concentration and would “foster competition and further development in Atlantic City,” Yunker said.

The CCC hearing can be viewed online here.

Ocean City Boardwalk keeps calm, carries on after Manco & Manco COVID-19 cases

OCEAN CITY — A day after learning employees tested positive for COVID-19 at a popular Boardwalk pizzeria, visitors and business owners remained confident about the rest of the summer.

For James Woods, the news wasn’t much of a surprise.

With restrictions easing and crowds growing larger, the North Potomac, Maryland, resident said Wednesday it was inevitable that new cases would pop up in businesses. Still, he and his family felt safe on the Boardwalk for their annual visit.

“I still think you can be safe and confident being at the beach and at the Boardwalk,” said Woods, 39. “For now, my family and I are still going to come out and enjoy the time while still being cautious.”

The owners of Manco & Manco Pizza announced late Tuesday that their Ocean City Boardwalk locations will remain closed until further notice while all employees are tested for COVID-19. The business originally planned to reopen Wednesday after announcing early Tuesday that three employees tested positive for the coronavirus, but decided against it. Originally, Manco & Manco was going to close for a day to clean and sanitize the properties, as well as stop selling single slices.

Manco & Manco’s pizza is one of the Boardwalk’s most popular attractions.

“All Boardwalk restaurants will remain closed until results are received Saturday,” read an updated statement from the business posted on Facebook. “Upon review of the test results, only employees with negative results will be allowed to return to work.”

Wes Kazmarck, president of the Ocean City Boardwalk Merchants Association, said the business “is to be commended” for its quick action.

“We know the virus is still out there, which is why all Boardwalk merchants have safety protocols in place, including social distancing, requiring masks and hygiene protocols for employees,” Kazmarck said in a statement, wishing the affected employees a speedy recovery.

Doug Jewell, owner of the kite and gift shop Air Circus, another Boardwalk business, has been persistent in making sure everyone who walks in his shop has a mask, going so far as to offer discounts for mask wearers as a show of appreciation.

There has been no noticeable decrease in business, Jewell said.

He also cited Gov. Phil Murphy when expressing his belief that the Boardwalk will be fine over the next few months.

“I’m a positive guy,” Jewell said. “I always think we’re going to salvage the rest of the season. Our governor was strict. He enforced (restrictions and mask mandates) early. New York and New Jersey are now the low (states). We were the highest, and now we’re the lowest.”

A block away from Manco & Manco’s Ninth Street location, the Original Fudge Kitchen has implemented rigorous safety protocols, including masks, a reduced capacity limit and glove changes for employees after almost every customer served.

If they keep doing what they’re doing, barring a second wave of cases, Assistant Manager Lorraine Coholan thinks they’ll be fine.

“I think we’re going to be able to finish the summer,” Coholan said.

Staff at Manco & Manco’s Somers Point location also will be tested, but it will remain open “due to the fact that their staff exclusively works in the Somers Point location,” according to the statement.

The day before the business announced the positive cases, Joanne Ankrum was one of the Boardwalk location’s customers. Like Kazmarck, the 73-year-old was happy to hear how quickly action was taken, and has no problems continuing to visit the Boardwalk.

“I think (I’ll be fine),” said Ankrum, of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “as long as I wear my mask and keep my distance.”

PHOTOS from Fourth of July weekend in Ocean City and Wildwood

Deluge of rabbits in Ocean City area is endearing to some, annoying to many

OCEAN CITY — The city is overrun with rabbits this year, and they are breeding like, well, like it’s their job.

The Ocean City Humane Society gets at least a call a day about the animals, animal control officer Jennifer Knipe said.

“They want us to remove the rabbits,” she said. “They’re destroying gardens. They’re defecating all over properties.”

But there is little the Humane Society or anyone else can do about the rabbits. State law prevents the city from trapping and relocating wildlife under most circumstances. Besides, relocating or exterminating rabbits in a yard is unlikely to help much.

“Even if we came and removed one from a property, 10 more would just move in,” Knipe said. “They just keep reproducing.”

The Humane Society handles animal control under a contract with the city. It also maintains a no-kill shelter off Tennessee Avenue, where it typically offers veterinary services as well. Services are limited this summer in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with adoptions available by appointment only, and those using the veterinary services asked to wait in their car until called on their cellphone.

According to city spokesman Doug Bergen, the city has received multiple calls from visitors and residents about the rabbits, but has few options.

“We can’t get into the business of exterminating wildlife. We’re not allowed to remove wildlife or relocate it. That’s state law,” he said.

The Humane Society does respond when a rabbit is injured, for instance if one is struck by a car, a fairly common occurrence in the summer.

The eastern cottontail rabbit, the species commonly found in Ocean City, is the most common rabbit species in North America. They sometimes dig shallow depressions in lawns, and babies start their lives in well-camouflaged nests until they are old enough to wean, but they do not dig large burrows like other rabbit species, Knipe said.

1930s Royal Doulton Bunnykins pieces have become very rare

Question: Several years after my birth in the 1960s, my grandmother began compiling for me a collection of ceramic figures associated with nursery rhymes and fairy tales. One item noted on her later list of purchases is “Mrs. Rabbit and Son Peter” followed by “P3646 Royal Doulton.” The two-figure, 3½-inch high piece shows Mrs. Rabbit in a long blue dress and white kitchen apron gently helping Peter put on his jacket. I will appreciate any information you can provide about the gift, its age, maker and possible value. — H.C., Belleplain

They are docile and rarely carry diseases, although a close look at the local population will often show multiple ticks on their faces and ears. Knipe said she does not believe there has ever been a case of rabies in any animal in Ocean City, although there have been cases reported in other wildlife in the mainland communities.

But they do love gardens.

According to John Vaughan of Vaughan’s Farm and Garden on Roosevelt Boulevard in the Marmora section of Upper Township, while rabbits will eat vegetables, your tomato plants are usually safe. It’s the soft, tender flower shoots that they most crave.

“It’s an island. It’s overpopulated. They don’t have a lot of places to live other than your yard,” Knipe said. They will eat grass and clover, but they seem to especially enjoy gardens, which makes this year’s carefully tended zinnias a bunny buffet.

“Try planting things that aren’t tasty to rabbits,” Knipe said. There are other options, such as placing a rag soaked in ammonia outside. Some people have purchased fox urine to spray or have tried cayenne pepper.

For these to be effective, she said, they need to be rotated or the rabbits will soon learn there is only the smell of a threat and be back for dessert.

Vaughan sells a product called liquid fence that he said has been an effective rabbit deterrent. There are granular versions and a spray.

“It smells bad to them, and it tastes bad to them,” he said. “They’ll go next door to the neighbor’s yard. My wife swears by it.”

Vaughan said it is harmless to the rabbits, not to mention to the plants and to people.

He believes the bunny boom goes beyond Ocean City. Customers report increases in other areas, and earlier this year it was difficult to keep the rabbit repellent in stock. But as an Ocean City resident, he, too, has noticed an increase.

Civil War gunpowder flasks draw hundreds of dollars

Question: What can you tell me about an antique metal pocket gunpowder flask purchased by my great-grandfather from a friend who was selling his family’s Civil War memorabilia in the 1960s. Copper and brass, it is 8¼ inches long, 4 inches wide, 1¼ inches thick and inscribed on both sides with an embossed peace symbol composed of a pair of clasped hands surrounded by 20 stars, an eagle, a U.S. banner and weapons. A trigger opens and closes the powder flask. I do not believe this item was used to fight the war. — M.M., Ocean View

“You don’t see one rabbit. You see three or four of them bouncing around,” he said.

Vaughan and many other locals cite a lack of foxes for the boom. He’s not wrong, said Knipe. In 2018, the highly contagious skin disease mange tore through the island’s fox population, which had in earlier years also reached exceptional levels.

Fox sightings had become commonplace. This year, they are much more unusual.

Rabbits have other natural predators, including owls and hawks, but Knipe said the birds often choose easier prey.

There are signs foxes are returning. The Humane Society is tracking a few new dens with litters this year. Unfortunately, at least as far as Knipe is concerned, people have posted images of the animals on social media and others have fed the wild animals.

“Kids are getting close. The foxes are getting more domesticated,” she said. “Then we start that whole cycle all over again.”

In other years, some foxes on the Boardwalk became so used to people that the animals were taking doughnuts from human hands.

Ocean City has taken extraordinary steps to control wildlife, including approving a $193,600 contract with Wildlife Control Specialists LLC to use birds of prey to clear aggressive sea gulls from the Boardwalk. But the gulls are just more skittish — they have not left the island.

According to Knipe, even if the foxes return in force, rabbits will remain part of the local landscape.

“It will help, but we’re not going to have dozens and dozens of foxes come into the city,” she said.

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Disciplined NJ officers' names won't come out for now

TRENTON — The release of state troopers’ disciplinary reports going back to 2000 did not go forward Wednesday as the attorney general planned because of a court order blocking their release.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal had ordered last month that the names of officers who committed serious disciplinary violations be released, but police and troopers’ unions sued to block the release. They argued the release of officers’ names would smear them unfairly.

They won a decision in New Jersey’s Appellate Division last week.

Grewal had sought to require law enforcement agencies across the state to publicly identify officers who were fired, demoted or suspended for more than five days because of a disciplinary violation. The first list was to be published by Dec. 31, though the State Police had planned to release data going back to 2000 on Wednesday.

Officers with the state Division of Criminal Justice and the Juvenile Justice Commission suspended for disciplinary violations were also to be publicized by Wednesday. The publication was to cover disciplinary violations for as far back the agencies’ records go, along with a summary of the misconduct, Grewal said.

The court only temporarily blocked the release of the disciplined officers’ names. A hearing in the case has been set for October.