(Bloomberg Business) — There was a time, believe it or not, when Atlantic City was considered the healthiest place in America. The town founder, Jonathan Pitney, was a country doctor and failed politician who, in 1850, decided to turn the southern New Jersey coast into a “city by the sea,” extolling the restorative properties of the sea air and saltwater. For decades—before the afflictions of Prohibition and organized crime, and long before the arrival of urban blight, Donald Trump, Don King, and fiscal despair—physicians from as far west as Chicago sent invalids and convalescents for recuperation. In an 1881 health-oriented publication, alongside ads for liver powder, hypophosphites syrup, and “fluid beef,” one doctor claimed the Atlantic City air could even cure malaria.
Now, more than a century later, there’s a modern-day heir to Dr. Pitney, with a Trump-like plan. And it all starts with making Atlantic City good for your health again.
On April 8, after months in bankruptcy court, Glenn Straub—an independently wealthy 68-year-old industrialist, itinerant polo player, and pugnacious real estate developer—won the right to buy Revel Atlantic City, a practically brand-new hotel and casino that opened in 2012 and closed in September 2014. Straub’s improbable plans for the 47-story, 6.3 million-square-foot property combine the chance to lose your life savings at the casino with the opportunity to extend your life in futuristic medical facilities. “These hospitals in the country aren’t doing what they’re supposed to,” says Straub, who envisions creating a longevity university to teach legions of seniors about IV-nutrient therapy, cold-temperature cryotherapy, and genome therapy. “I’ll extend your quality of life by an extra 20 years, guaranteed. If we don’t extend your life and you don’t feel more comfortable, don’t pay.”
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Straub owns more than 600 formerly distressed properties worldwide: country clubs, homes, golf courses, mining sites. It may only have been only a matter of time before the Florida investor was tempted by the chronically distressed Atlantic City. When Brookfield Asset Management abandoned an initial $110 million bid to buy Revel out of bankruptcy, Straub stepped in with an offer of $95.5 million. A court ruling in January voided Straub’s first bid, so he negotiated an even lower price while battling with some of Revel’s creditors. Last month’s court decision gives Straub the whole complex for $82 million—not bad for a hotel that cost $2.4 billion to build.
Revel is just one small part of Straub’s $1.5 billion investment plan for a newly designated district on the north end of Atlantic City, with upgrades spanning land, sea, and air. He sees an equestrian center for polo, show jumping, and dressage to make the city a new stop on the horse circuit between Florida and Canada. A marina will accommodate the mammoth superyachts owned by the same crowd—horse patrons and oligarchs with boats too big for Greenwich or the Hamptons. Straub filed paperwork to take over the city’s dormant airfield and set loose a fleet of two dozen small planes to fly in high rollers from anywhere he can find them—for free. Straub says he’ll need to bring in tens of thousands of visitors per month to succeed, and the new helipad he wants to build on the roof of Revel’s parking garage can’t do it alone. His vision extends to a family-friendly water park and a long pier stretching into the ocean, with a laser light show at night.
But Revel is his linchpin. The glistening casino-meets-clinic will promise something close to a shot at immortality. “We can make you live to be a hundred years old,” Straub tells me on the phone the first time we speak, a few weeks before Revel became his. “I don’t know if you want to live to be a hundred years old. But we can make you.”
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The day before a federal bankruptcy judge decided in his favor, Straub pulls up to Revel in a white Impala. He’s wiry and fast-talking—a tan, outdoorsy Jimmy Cagney, dressed modestly with chestnut-colored hair and a slight drawl. Straub is escorting three young, attractive horse-show promoters. “These guys are important for us,” he says as he sends them off on a tour of the facilities.
Horse-related events appeal to Straub because of the insane markup and profit margin. “Someday, if you had $20 million in the bank and your daughter rode dressage on a little Shetland pony and she could win a little ribbon,” he says, “you’d spend $100,000 for that $3 ribbon.” Atlantic City adds still more value as a dressage venue thanks to legalized gambling. “Handicapping of horses brings a whole new element to it. People in the stands, bored stiff, they’ll want to bet on it. Dressage is so boring. My two daughters did dressage. Oh my God, it’s like watching paint dry. But if you could bet on it? You’d say, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll put $10,000 on my daughter.’”
The workers maintaining Revel already know Straub is the presumed new owner. On the executive floor, one employee has his favorite doughnuts on hand. Once we’re alone, in a boardroom with an ocean view, Straub is less than kind about them: “They’re, like, inbred. These people get paid too much money.”
But what gets him most excited are the frontiers of life-extension therapy. In recent years he’s dabbled in several fringe techniques to stay vital. After each polo match, Straub undergoes cryogenic cold-temperature therapy—a blast of nitrogen vapor while enclosed in a special chamber—to repair damaged tissue. “All the professional sports teams are doing it now, shocking your body with cold water,” he says.
He says he also believes in the power of blood analysis and elective transfusions, which he undergoes once a week for $165. “We’re there. We’re going to be living over a hundred years of age with no problem at all. But do you want to live over 100 years of age?” he asks again. “I’ve got the money, so I’d like to go ahead and do it—and there’s a lot of people like me out there.”
“I had thick blood,” Straub tells me of his own introduction to better living through blood work. The practitioner might not have been an MD—Straub is unsure—but he swears by the results and now gets weekly nutrient-enriched transfusions. “So after all that damn testing they got me on 12 pills right now, and I’m ready to punch anybody.”
Straub is practiced at throwing punches after making his fortune tenaciously and, often, litigiously. “He’s kind of one of our difficult-to-keep-in-the-line local billionaires,” a councilwoman in Wellington, Fla., recently told a reporter. His aggression is tempered somewhat by candor and self-awareness. None of the combat ever seems personal; he just plays hard. “Someone slaps us, we don’t slap back. We punch them,” he says. “That’s how we run our companies.”
Straub grew up middle class in Wheeling, W.Va. His father, who owned car dealerships and tractor and auto leasing companies, died when Straub was still in high school. He quit college to go into business with his brother, George, expanding from road construction and government projects to real estate before branching out further. “We owned all this land,” he says, “and started mining for oil and gas in it.”
From the start, Straub seemed to thrive on confrontation. Taking on the government in court was, as he once put it, “a little hobby of mine.” He regularly tangled with unions and remembers driving a truck through a crowd of strikers—“only one mile an hour.” An executive at one construction company bought by Straub claimed in a lawsuit that the new owner punched him in the eye; Straub claimed in response that the other guy started it. His own brother briefly sued him, in a case last reported as dormant (George died of cancer, Straub says, a few years ago). Straub retired in the early 1980s at age 40, still owning 26 plants.
He relocated to Florida in 1983 and became a socialite and real estate baron. “I’ve played like five games of golf,” he says, “but I own more golf courses than I think Trump does.” Trump is a friendly rival whom Straub admires greatly. “We wink at each other when we’re at the same auctions and make jokes about going into the bathroom and flipping a coin for who’ll buy it.” Trump is fond of Straub, too, calling him “a really wonderful investor” with “a great sense of value—he knows when to buy and when not to buy.”
In 1993, Straub bought the Palm Beach Polo Golf and Country Club in Wellington as a present for his then-wife Rebecca and his two daughters. Straub ended up antagonizing its well-born denizens, who accused him of letting the club go to seed amid various schemes to redevelop the polo facilities for residences and retail. The Palm Beach Post once called him “Wellington’s most hated man.” After decades of bad blood, the homeowners living on the club’s grounds sued him two years ago and lost. “If I feel like putting homes on every golf hole,” he said at the time, “I have the right to do that.”
Between polo matches and scrapes with locals, Straub built a second fortune as a lender of super-collateralized loans. “We buy major things out of bankruptcy, distressed properties for nickels on the dollar,” he says. “We get managers running them and then we tell those managers, ‘Give us five years of your life, run those properties just like it’s your own, we’ll finance you.’” The terms are slightly different than those of a regular bank: “We don’t lend dollar for dollar. We’ll lend you $25 million, but you better give us $100 million in collateral. But we also don’t mind getting nonliquid assets as collateral.”