With a resounding win in Arizona, one of three states holding presidential primaries on Tuesday, Donald Trump is inching closer to the Republican nomination. But for Beth Rosser, the co-owner and vice president of Triad Building Specialties, every one of the billionaire real estate mogul's political successes just opens old wounds.
As Rosser remembers it, her father, Forest Jenkins, who started Triad, was as excited as other local contractors to get a decent book of business in 1989, when Trump set to work building the Taj Mahal casino. Back then, Trump called the Atlantic City spot "the ultimate property," and it was to be the largest casino in the world, according to news reports at the time.
Triad, an installer of toilet partitions based in Westchester, Pennsylvania, was and is a tiny family enterprise in comparison, with just four employees. Rosser says in a good year, the business--which Jenkins founded in 1976, after years of scrimping and saving as a union sheet metal worker--made about $750,000 in revenue at the time. The job for Trump, which was for installation of bathroom partitions in the sprawling 17-acre, 1,300-room hotel, should have brought in $250,000.
But the Taj Mahal soon foundered under high-interest payments for loans on the $1 billion project, and it was forced into bankruptcy by 1990. The legal proceedings stretched on for 15 years and included 341 meetings involving thousands of creditors, as ever-mounting debt was restructured and Trump received a $500 million credit line from banks that assumed ownership of the property. Most creditors received pennies on the dollar of what they were owed, local experts said.
"It's a disgrace, especially how [Trump] talks about making America great again," Rosser says. "He made his way to the top on the backs of hardworking Americans."
In the end, Rosser says Triad finally recouped about $150,000 after three years of court struggles. But it took the business close to a decade to recover from the $100,000 shortfall, she says, including paying off the loans to undertake the job. Ultimately, Triad only managed to stay afloat by borrowing from the local manufacturer with which it had contracted to make components of the partitions. Today, the company still has the same number of employees, and has revenue just north of $1 million.
Other small businesses that worked with Trump on the casino were not as lucky and were swallowed up in the bankruptcy, Rosser says. That includes Altman Contracting, a Southampton, New Jersey, builder Rosser says lost millions of dollars in uncollected bills. Inc.'s request to speak with Trump or a campaign representative went unanswered.
Business owners feel the fallout
Complaints about Trump's lack of consideration for small-business owners in Atlantic City surface over and over. "The fact is, there were a lot of small contractors and vendors who got hurt, who went out of business because Trump did not pay contracts on time," New Jersey state senator Jim Whelan, who was the mayor of Atlantic City during Trump's casino years, told Newsweek last year.
Bryant Simon, a professor at Temple University, whose book Boardwalk of Dreams chronicles the history of Atlantic City, including Trump's business dealings there, says business owners who worked on the Taj Mahal were often paid just 10 cents to 20 cents on the dollar in the bankruptcy. That included not just building contractors but carpet layers, limousine drivers, and other service providers.
And Simon agrees with Whelan that in the lead-up to the bankruptcy, things were scarcely any better either.
"[Trump] was a notoriously late payer. If payment was for net 60 days, he paid in 90," Simon says.
In fairness, Simon adds, the owners of all the Atlantic City casinos were late payers. He says his own father, who owned a used car rental business and at times rented to Trump's business, eventually declined to rent to any casinos in the area because of their poor reputation for payment.
Other business owners in Atlantic City did benefit from the build-out of casinos in the 1980s and '90s. Martin Wood, the owner of one of the city's two pawnshops, Wood's Loan Office, saw his business flourish as down-on-their luck gamblers pawned their jewelry for cash. But when the Taj Mahal had its massive crash-and-burn, few business owners were immune.
"Any time the casinos go into bankruptcy, everybody loses except them," Wood says. As far as Trump goes, he says: "Suppliers and whatnot got shafted. If you sent Trump a bill for $400, he would say, 'Take $2.'"
New issues, same promises
On a macro scale, experts see disturbing parallels between Trump's proposals on current business issues and the legacy he left in Atlantic City. In a commentary in The Wall Street Journal this week, former vice president of the Federal Reserve Alan Blinder writes that Trump's tax cut plans--the largest of all the presidential candidates--would cost the nation $9.5 trillion over the next decade, which in turn would make the budget deficit balloon to ruinous effect.
Additionally, Trump's anti-immigration stance would leave large holes in the economy. Three percent of the population could be uprooted and sent back to their native countries, with no one left to do the jobs they currently do, Blinder says. He also points with alarm to the cost of Trump's biggest gambit, the wall along the border with Mexico, which is now estimated at $10 billion, an increase of $2 billion from earlier forecasts.
"Did someone say 'cost overruns'?" he writes. "Who cares? Mexico will pay, right? Wrong."
It's grandiose proposals for things like a wall that Simon and others find so troubling as well.
"One of the fascinating things about [Trump's] campaign is that it has no obligation to the normal standards of truth," Simon says. "There is a pattern of his making claims that can't be substantiated, and a pattern of people who want to believe him."