Steel Pier amusement park's bungee-powered Rocket ride blasts thrill-seekers 200 feet into the air, then hurtles them back to earth.
The park's president, Anthony Catanoso, likes a good adventure, but after nearly 20 years of short-term leases and constant insecurity, the new co-owner of the pier property is happy to have his feet firmly on the ground.
Catanoso is a principal of Steel Pier Associates, which purchased the pier from Trump Entertainment Resorts in August for $4.25 million.
Steel Pier Associates is comprised of Catanoso, two of his brothers, Ed Olwell, and architect Paul Steelman. With the exception of Steelman, Catanoso, his brothers and Taft Johnson, have operated the pier amusement park since 1993 under a series of short-term leases from Trump Entertainment.
In its early days, the 113-year-old pier was a major entertainment hub, playing host to acts like The Three Stooges, Amos 'n Andy and Frank Sinatra, as well as carnival shows and attractions like a diving horse. The pier closed in 1976 and burned down in a 1982 fire, but it got a new start when Resorts International rebuilt the pier and sold it, along with the under-construction Taj Mahal casino, to Donald Trump.
A decade later, seeing a healthy market and demand for family entertainment, Catanoso and his partners approached Trump Entertainment about taking over operation of the pier. It took some convincing, he said.
"We'd operated eight or 10 go-kart tracks between Ocean City and Wildwood," he said. "So they went down and looked at our go-kart operations and liked them, and said OK. They gave us a shot."
But it came on a very short leash. The group signed a lease April 25, 1993, scrambled to pull together rides and games, and opened for Memorial Day — but despite its success, the group was unable to secure a long-term commitment from its landlord, Trump Entertainment, for two decades.
"I used to tell everybody we were in the 19th year of a two-year lease," Catanoso said.
That, coupled with a handful of nonrenewal notices over the years, made any high-dollar investment in the site incredibly risky. But when Mark Juliano took over as CEO of Trump Entertainment in 2007, the news turned from bad to worse — then to good.
Initially, Catanoso said, Juliano wanted Atlantic Pier Amusements gone, but Steel Pier successfully negotiated a one-year extension to allow it to remove the equipment. But over that intervening year, they won Juliano over, and he gave them a six-year lease shortly before being replaced as head of Trump Entertainment Resorts.
In June, the new management announced plans to auction the pier — news that, in a different time, could have been a deathblow for the Steel Pier amusement park. But Catanoso said he saw an opportunity.
"We always knew we could never own the place, because the value years ago was probably $15 (million) to $20 million," he said. But with real estate ravaged and Atlantic City aching, the price was suddenly much, much lower. Trump set an opening bid of $2.5 million; Catanoso and his partners pounced, agreeing in August to buy the pier for $4.25 million ahead of the scheduled auction.
Olwell said the purchase is a risk, but all the same, "I'm not looking at going backwards," he said. "I'm saying, 'how big can this be,' rather than 'are we going to make it?'"
Steelman, the newest partner in the group, has a few opinions about that. An Atlantic City native, Steelman is now a Las Vegas-based architect who specializes in designing gaming and entertainment facilities. He's known the Catanoso family for about 15 years.
"I think the Catanosos have done a marvelous job creating a series of low-cost attractions, and making a viable business and maintaining the family attitude," he said.
That said, Steelman is eager to revamp the park. He said he and his partners are considering a new roller coaster, perhaps as soon as next year, and may enclose part of the pier, which would allow it to stay open beyond the summer. Steelman plans to develop the 20,000-square-foot walkway that connects the pier to the Taj Mahal — something he designed as a young architect, but has never been used.
Steelman said he looks to cities like Las Vegas and Orlando as examples of the success that can come when various stakeholders unite behind a singular vision. He thinks Gov. Chris Christie's Atlantic City revitalization policies are a step in the right direction.
Christie spearheaded the creation of a state-controlled tourism district, and reorganized the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority and the city's convention and visitors bureau to carry out his vision of transforming the city into an entertainment destination, rather than simply a gambling mecca. Christie also signed a bill allowing for two small hotel-casinos, a move aimed at spurring development by lowering the cost of entry into the market.
Israel Posner, who heads Stockton College's Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Tourism and Hospitality, said there's definitely risk involved, given this challenging moment for Atlantic City, but he said they aren't alone in investing here.
"If anybody knows Steel Pier, I guarantee you the Catanosos do," he said.
And Catanoso said he knows a thing or two about risk. Before operating Steel Pier, he worked in insurance, specializing in insurance and risk management for amusement parks.
"This is probably a bigger risk," he said. "There's a downturn in the market, we're in a really sluggish casino period and our financial exposure's much greater."
That said, Catanoso said he's ready to make an investment. "We are going to really sit down and plan out a strategy here, and it's going to be gradual, and it's going to be methodical," he said, "so we can get it right."
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