At 5:59 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 10 - the Trump Taj Mahal, once Donald Trump’s greatest real estate hope, will shutter its doors. Nearly 3,000 people will lose their jobs, their pensions and possibly their homes.
Last week, I watched as Trump was nearly held accountable at the first presidential debate for laying the groundwork for this city-wide catastrophe. I watched Hillary Clinton take him to task for reneging on hundreds of contracts with local laborers. But the Donald just pursed his lips and shrugged, saying that was what “our country should do, too.”
I am watching people rally around a man who thinks that what America needs is to cheat itself.
For an Atlantic City native like me, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. My parents both worked in the casinos; my mom was assigned seniority number 13 of the 500 cocktail waitresses hired to staff the Taj when it opened in 1990. Throughout my childhood, Trump was a blowhard bogeyman figure, a name synonymous with aggressively claiming credit for any success in the vicinity, and bailing when things go wrong.
It’s been confounding to see him hit the campaign trail, riling up voters with the promise of economic success, when I’ve spent my life witnessing the way he built his slipshod empire on the backs of his workers and left it there to come tumbling down the moment they squirmed.
Trump no longer has controlling interest in any Atlantic City corporation, having retreated in 2010 after his third bankruptcy there, so it’s easy for him to beg off the city’s current failures. But it was his orchestration of a casino-industry bubble - flouting local regulation, building the Taj with $700 million in junk bonds at 14 percent interest, defaults, bankruptcies - that got the city into this mess. It didn’t seem to hurt Trump, though; his losses in Atlantic City probably contributed to the $916 million he reportedly wrote off as a loss on his taxes in 1995, which could have offset millions of dollars in income in future years.
Trump has no problem decrying the size of the national deficit but has nothing to say about his own role in running it up. I would love to know where he expects our country’s wealth to come from — but if a lifetime of witnessing the way he works is any indication, the only conviction he has is that he shouldn’t be the one to bear the responsibility.
In August 1990, just four months after the opening of the Trump Taj Mahal, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission issued a damning report that 253 area subcontractors had not been paid either in full or on time for the project. This amounted to $69.5 million - mostly owed to small, local, family businesses, for whom delays on a single large contract can mean financial ruin.
Many of those wronged by Trump banded together to sue for what they were owed. They were threatened: If they didn’t settle, they would either be sucked dry through indefinitely delayed litigation processes or risk becoming unsecured creditors to Trump in bankruptcy court.
Sure enough, in April 1991, the company did declare bankruptcy. Those contractors who settled were able to recoup as much as 70 cents on the dollar - enough to cover their own delayed payments to suppliers, but not to turn a profit. Others weren’t even as lucky. Many small companies went out of business, leaving workers across the region out of work even before the casinos folded.
Trump has a documented, ongoing history of failing to pay contractors, then suggesting that he’s withholding due to shoddy work, or that he’s “already paid enough.” These subjective excuses always come after the contract, like the value of the American worker is a yard-sale tag to be haggled over.
This artless deal is a mark of pride for Trump. From a purely Darwinian perspective, it’s hard not to at least respect his game. But when you’ve watched him come out ahead at the expense of your friends and neighbors, you can’t trust a Trump administration to fight on our behalf.
When the Taj Mahal closes next week, 2,848 people will be losing their jobs and retirement funds. (And, under a deal he cut, his name will come off the building.) The unemployment rate of the city is already 9.2 percent, nearly twice the national average, and Atlantic County, N.J., is the nation’s mortgage foreclosure capital, meaning that many workers whose homes are underwater won’t be able to afford to move somewhere else to seek new jobs.
How can a presidential candidate look at a city damaged so directly by his own business practices — and say only that he’s smart to have gotten out when he did?
Property values in my hometown have plunged. A recent Stockton University study estimated that approximately 13,000 workers have left the labor force after their jobs disappeared.
And while grime collects on the gilt facades of Trump’s abandoned buildings, the city’s working poor try to make a life of what little is left behind.
For many people, the resort town’s collapse means only the loss of an option for a fun weekend trip — nothing more serious than a summer bummer.
But I grew up wandering Steel Pier, waiting for my mother’s shifts to end so we could grab a funnel cake. I spent hours listening to my father play jazz standards in casino lounges. That resort town is where my family, and thousands like mine, built a life. Every shuttered window on the boardwalk is personal to me. It’s the loss of my history, and it’s condensed to a reckless billionaire’s tax write-off.
Neither of my parents works in the casinos anymore, like so many of their former colleagues. Many of my friends’ parents were forced into early retirement. High school classmates who went straight to work in the casinos have nearly all had to relocate - at least three of them to other casino towns in Nevada. The city no longer holds its sparkle. It’s barely holding water.
When people show you who they are, believe them. Donald Trump made a bad gamble in my community, devastating thousands of American citizens. In his own mind, of course, he was a success. In May, Trump told the New York Times about his 25 years in Atlantic City: “The money I took out of there was incredible.”
It’s the only thing he has to say of my now-destroyed home town. He came, he took and he left. And I hate to break it to you, America — he’s not coming back for us.
Brousse was born in Atlantic City and works as a nonprofit development and communications specialist in Philadelphia.