No longer focused primarily on management of North Jersey sporting venues, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority will be involved in bolstering South Jersey’s tourism economy, a top state official said Thursday.

Wayne Hasenbalg, president and CEO of the Sports and Exposition Authority, said many have yet to understand the authority’s new role in promoting tourism across the state, and instead believe the authority is a “Meadowlands-centric” agency unconnected to the rest of the state.

“I really feel very strongly about getting involved in South Jersey. ... Particularly with the impact of Hurricane Sandy, people I think really understand more than ever how important tourism is in the state,” Hasenbalg told a crowd gathered for an Atlantic City Hotel & Lodging Association luncheon at Bally’s Atlantic City.

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Formerly Gov. Chris Christie’s deputy chief of staff for policy and planning, Hasenbalg took over the authority’s lead role in February, just prior to an announcement of major changes in the state’s tourism structure. In March, the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Gaming, Sports and Entertainment called for all government tourism operations to be consolidated under the Sports and Exposition Authority, which would act as the lead agency in attracting entertainment to the state.

Also known as the Hanson Commission, the group is the same one that issued the 2010 report that prompted changes in state law leading to the creation of the Atlantic City Tourism District. The commission’s March report called for moving the Sports and Exposition Authority’s operations from the state Department of Community Affairs to the Department of State, a move Hasenbalg said is symbolic of the governor’s commitment to making tourism a priority.

The authority was created in 1971 as a vehicle to construct and operate the Meadowlands Sports Complex. Its mission was extended over the years, and at one point it controlled Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center, for which the authority still holds the bonds used to finance its construction. Officials are currently working to transfer those bonds.

Hasenbalg stressed that the work to promote South Jersey’s tourism economy has already begun. He pointed to a recently increased effort to promote the region’s golf courses as one of the first examples of the Sports and Exposition Authority’s influence in the region.

In September, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority provided a $250,000 grant to the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association intended to market greens such as the Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield and Blue Heron Pines Golf Club in Galloway Township — important regional assets that were not being properly promoted, officials said. Previously, $70,000 a year was spent on golf marketing, resulting in a $7 million economic impact. Meanwhile Ocean City, Md., spends $600,000 and sees a $46 million impact, officials said.

The grant came about after Hasenbalg met with Grace Hanlon, director of the state Division of Travel and Tourism, who knew of the association’s desire to increase the focus on golf. Hasenbalg eventually approached the CRDA as a possible means to fund the effort.

“For me it was the first example of what the new sports authority was supposed to do,” Hasenbalg said. “I don’t have any money. ... Our finances are in pretty bad straits. ... I was determined to find another funding source in a government agency who shared my view.”

CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri said Hasenbalg was key in drawing attention to the proposal.

“He helped to frame it in a way in which we could see what an investment would do in terms of impact,” Palmieri said. “We respond to things where we’re able to see clear the return on investment.”

Hasenbalg said it was too soon to point to other specific projects or events that could be brought to South Jersey.

The authority is scheduled to present a business plan to the Governor’s Office within the next 60 days mapping out how the authority will bring more events to the state, Hasenbalg said.

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