Gambling Man

Want to make a deal in Atlantic City? Call Damon Tyner

Published in 2007 New Jersey Rising Stars — August 2007

It’s a blustery afternoon in Atlantic City, with gales of wind so extreme that pedestrians are blown off the sidewalks and litter flies through the gray sky. A grim picture, perhaps, but for this resort town, the weather is splendid. After all, when it’s bleak outside, people stay indoors. And when they stay indoors, they gamble.

Few understand the city better than Damon Tyner. A land-use and planning attorney at Parker McCay, he works with just about any group with a stake in the gambling trade—casinos, real estate developers, billboard companies, to name a few. It’s his job to help companies turn the business plans of their dreams into reality.

There are challenges. For one, the city’s reputation for sleaze is as alive as ever—especially when it comes to Tyner’s area of expertise, zoning and development. In March, former city council president Craig Callaway was sentenced to 40 months in prison for accepting $36,000 in bribes to get approval for a development project. Then three other council members were caught in an FBI sting, two of whom were sentenced to prison in May. Then a fourth councilman was caught on videotape having sex with a prostitute in a motel room.

“It’s hard to promote Atlantic City in an environment where your leaders are getting indicted for bribery and extortion,” the 36-year-old Tyner admits. “I want to present a different image.”

Making things even more challenging is the fact that gambling receipts were down in January and February—slot revenue by 8 percent and overall gambling by 4 percent—when compared to those same months last year. Something needs to be done.

“If we can get some stability going, we can get investors to develop here,” he says.

If anyone can portray that stability, it’s Tyner. He has lived in Atlantic City his whole life.

 

The youngest of 10 children, Tyner grew up in the shadows of the casinos in a middle-class neighborhood. His dad, Henry “Hank” Tyner, was a popular city police officer who, in 1981, became Atlantic City’s first elected city council president after voters decided to reorganize their government. Tyner wasn’t thrilled.

“I liked it much better when he was a police officer,” he says. “His political career created a lot of stress in our household as there were a lot of demands on him at the time. It was a thankless job, and I would read these articles in the newspaper where all these people were taking shots at him. I didn’t like it.”

Eventually, his father realized he didn’t like it much either. “I got fed up with the name calling and suspicions and got out,” says Hank Tyner, who served one term from 1981 to 1985 before returning to the police department and rising to the rank of inspector.

Even as a young boy, Tyner had a steely determination to succeed, which his father noticed. “Damon saw how his older siblings were chastised or would get into trouble for doing something wrong, and he never went that way,” he says. “He was a self-disciplined kid and always knew where he was going.”

Tyner graduated from Howard University and attended Widener University School of Law, which gave him a full scholarship. After law school, Fox Rothschild, one of Atlantic City’s biggest firms, hired him as an associate. He specialized in land-use matters and municipal law. He represented clients as diverse as the Pleasantville Board of Education; the AC Club Inc., which operates a nightclub; the Bethlehem AME Church, a historic black church; and the Borgata, the city’s newest and most successful casino, which was built in 2003.

In 2005, Tyner ran for state assembly as a Democrat. “I really didn’t want to be involved in politics because of my dad’s experience, but my wife told me to go ahead and said that she knew, even if I didn’t, that I was always running for something,” he says. “I thought about it and started to believe I could win and I could make a difference.”

Tyner didn’t win—he lost by 1,582 votes—but he doesn’t regret the experience. “It was thrilling,” he says. “I met a lot of people across New Jersey that I never would have had the chance to meet. I got to campaign with Governor Jon Corzine.”

A few months after the election, Parker McCay recruited Tyner to start an Atlantic City branch. Other than his assistant, Tyner works by himself out of an expansive, mostly empty office on the outskirts of the city. He rarely spends time there. Instead, Tyner, who is tethered to his BlackBerry, is usually downtown at a zoning meeting or an appointment with a client.

“Damon’s got unlimited potential,” says Jack Plackter, a partner at Fox Rothschild and Tyner’s former boss. “I was sorry to see him go, but I’m happy he’s been so successful. Damon is the type of person who, if he wants to accomplish something, he’s going to work extremely hard and accomplish it.”

 

Despite the declining casino profits, Tyner isn’t worried about his hometown. He points to three factors that have led to a drop in cash receipts at the casinos. First, the Sands, one of the city’s 12 casinos, closed last year. Second, smoking restrictions in the casinos recently took effect. Finally, competition for gamblers is fiercer than ever. In fact, three new slot-machine casinos recently opened in nearby Pennsylvania, and slot machines have now been added to Yonkers Raceway in the New York suburbs.

Still, bad news for the casinos isn’t necessarily bad news for Tyner’s practice. For instance, Harrah’s, which also owns the Showboat, Caesars and Bally’s hotels, hired him to lobby the city council to modify the smoking regulations. He eventually worked out a compromise that permitted the casinos to set aside 25 percent of gambling space for smokers, as long as these cigarette havens were walled off from the smoke-free areas.

And when the city wanted to limit the height of new gaming facilities, Tyner stepped in to help overturn the restriction—a major victory for the industry.

A tour of Atlantic City in Tyner’s black Chevy Tahoe reveals a massive surge in construction. Condo projects and new homes with expensive price tags have sprouted up. A new downtown shopping district, called The Walk, is in place, as well as hip retailers like H&M and a nightclub owned by rapper Jay-Z. And two new casinos along the boardwalk are scheduled for construction at a cost of more than $1.5 billion each.

“This was the Sands—it’s closed right now,” he says as he points out the isolated casino building that’s a few hundred feet away from the boardwalk and surrounded by trash-strewn, barren land. “They’re going to demolish it and develop it all the way up to the boardwalk, and they’ll rebuild where all these cars are.”

A project of his?

Surprisingly, Tyner says no. Then adds, “Well, at least not yet.”

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