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Two guys, a casino and a $500M gamble: For N.J. developers Morris and Jingoli, turning the Trump Taj into the Hard Rock may be their biggest bet ever

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Joe Jingoli, left, CEO of Joseph Jingoli & Son Inc.; Jim Allen, Hard Rock International chairman; and Jack Morris, CEO and president of Edgewood Properties, raise guitars at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City news conference  April 5 in Atlantic City. - Jeff Fusco for Hard Rock International
Joe Jingoli, left, CEO of Joseph Jingoli & Son Inc.; Jim Allen, Hard Rock International chairman; and Jack Morris, CEO and president of Edgewood Properties, raise guitars at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City news conference April 5 in Atlantic City. - Jeff Fusco for Hard Rock International - ()

A round corner table at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse Grill in Somerville is always reserved for Jack Morris. It should be.

Morris not only developed the massive mixed-used facility on Main Street that helped transform a fading working-class town into a destination to live, work and shop that is coveted by millennials, retirees and everyone in between, he convinced a world-acclaimed brand to become an anchor tenant.

“When I built this steakhouse, people said, ‘You’re crazy. Do you really think that people are going to come to Somerville, New Jersey, and spend a hundred-plus dollars per person on a steak and a drink and a salad and a dessert?’” he asked.

“I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ I believed in it. Nobody else believed in it. I said, ‘I’m going to provide something that we don’t have.’

“The same thing is going to happen in Atlantic City.”

Morris, the CEO and president of Edgewood Properties, sits with Joe Jingoli, the CEO of Joseph Jingoli & Son Inc. The two have worked together to help revitalize many parts of the state.

They were eager to give an update on their latest effort, transforming the outdated Trump Taj Mahal into the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.

“This is just going to be a game-changer,” Morris said. “Not just for Atlantic City, but for the people of New Jersey.

“We’re going to provide entertainment, and people love entertainment.”

First, however, they have to transform the building.

They said they are making steady progress in what figures to be a $500 million renovation.

There was the hiring of a respected industry veteran, Matt Harkness, to run the facility.

There was a public auction of what could be considered both Trump Taj memorabilia and useable everyday items — “One guy bought every set of sheets we had,” Morris said.

And, of course, there were some unexpected discoveries.

“(We) bought the building where is, as is, close in 30 days,” Jingoli said. “It’s almost 4.5 million square feet and it’s 35 years old.”

And when you do that, Morris said, you’re going to find “a lot of surprises” in the building.

Jingoli, however, said he was pleased to find something else: a building in workable order.

“It’s a very well-thought-out casino,” he said. “Hotel, retail, restaurants, entertainment, the theaters, 2,000 rooms.

“The original bones lay out well for what we want to do.”

One of the biggest initial upgrades will take place in the theater. Not only will it get a facelift, it will expand its seating capacity from approximately 5,500 to 7,000.

Morris and Jingoli feel the refurbished theatre — along with the international pull of the Hard Rock brand — will bring better entertainment all year long.

But that’s just one part of it.

Morris and Jingoli see great potential in conventions.

“The convention business is a huge business,” Morris said. “You’ve got New York City and Philadelphia. People can come to a convention in Atlantic City and have all the amenities that we’ll have.

“We’re very confident. We’re getting calls and inquiries already from people who want to book conventions.”

Jingoli said Atlantic City’s location, once considered a liability, can become a big asset.

“We have business all over the country and in the Caribbean (and we know) commercial travel is getting more and more difficult,” he said. “We think having a great venue within that geographic drive will enable us to attract people and hang on to them.”

Morris hopes the property will help attract another type of person: competitors.

“I welcome everybody,” he said. “I welcome each and every person that wants to come and invest in Atlantic City as long as they want to do a good job and they are truly going to make something beautiful.

“If they are just going to try to take advantage of an opportunity, I don’t know that that’s good for Atlantic City long-term. Short-term, this is going to take a while. It’s not going to happen overnight. But this is certainly a good shot in the you-know-what to get it going in the right direction.”

Morris said he’s been pleased by the reaction to the purchase.

“I can’t tell you how many impressions (we’ve gotten) from across the globe,” he said. “People have responded in a positive manner to Hard Rock and what we are doing in Atlantic City. We were really surprised in the amount of people who have come to us wanting to be part of the success of the Hard Rock in Atlantic City.

“Some, I don’t want to discuss because we don’t have signed agreements, are game-changers. The end result is a better product for the people of New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. You’re going to get some people come from further out, I’m sure, but those are most of the people we’re going to get.”

Morris and Jingoli acknowledge there is still a long and difficult road ahead.

“When we decided we wanted to make a difference in Atlantic City, we knew we were taking on a large challenge,” Morris said. “What hurdles will we have to contend with? There’s going to be a lot of them. You can’t go into something this big and this complex without expecting there to be a lot of hurdles.”

Jingoli is eager to take them on.

“There’s a combination of getting our hands around what needs to be done and working with the Hard Rock (and globally acclaimed designer) Jeffrey Beers to turn it into an iconic destination.

“There’s a lot of work. Nothing we’re afraid of, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”

Morris, however, is confident he can make a change.

He only needs to look around Wolfgang’s to realize he can bring his visions to life.

It’s a good thing his table was held at the restaurant. On this night, a Wednesday during the peak of the Shore season, the place was packed.

Of course, having Wolfgang’s brings more than just money to Somerville. Morris laughs at the notoriety it is receiving, too.

“Wolfgang’s is known internationally,” he said. “Look at the menu, you’re going to see Tokyo, Beverly Hills, New York City, all these cities around the world, and then, Somerville, New Jersey.

“Who would have thought?”

It confirmed Morris’ belief that one property can have great impact.

“So many people have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you for bringing this here.’ Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (came up to me) and said, ‘I haven’t been in Somerville in years; I can’t believe what you did. The only reason I came here was because of this restaurant.’

“So, clearly, people who have never been to Somerville are now coming to Somerville. The same thing is going to happen in Atlantic City.”

And the state — and its residents — will benefit, Morris said.

“The entertainment and the experience is going to bring people there,” he said. “Being able to go to the beaches, being able to go to the boardwalks and do the things that people really love to do in New Jersey, things that makes New Jersey the great state that it is (is something we haven’t) had in Atlantic City in a long time. We can bring that back.”

For Morris and Jingoli, lifelong residents, it’s a point of pride.

“No disrespect to any of the people there, because they’ve kept their doors open and we’re so thankful to them, but they’re not New Jersey people,” he said. “They are there to make money. They have shareholders and stockholders, and they have issues all over the world that they have to contend with, and then they have to deal with what they have to contend with in Atlantic City.

“We are true New Jerseyans. We truly have our heart and our dollars in Atlantic City and in what we do. That will continue.

“That’s what I’ve done my whole career: I’ve taken on difficult projects, things that people quite frankly didn’t want to take on, and I’ve been able to accomplish most of them.”

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