ATLANTIC CITY — As mayor, Jim Whelan helped pave the way for redevelopment, including construction of a new convention center, a minor league baseball stadium and an underground tunnel that opened the city’s marina to casino expansion.
But the development boom during Whelan’s tenure came at a price. During that period, local officials lost control of three major assets to the state. Atlantic City International Airport, the downtown convention center and the gateway corridor that later became The Walk all fell under state control.
Whelan, who died last Tuesday of a heart attack at age 68, used his skills as a politician to bring together political and business factions as he led the city through massive changes and helped reshape the city’s skyline and the political landscape.
“Atlantic City had three growth spurts: the 1920s with Boardwalk Hall, the post-World War II period with music and entertainment, and the post-casino referendum period. Jim Whelan led the third, and while projects certainly are evidence of his legacy,” said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College, “I think it much more accurate to say that his strength was in herding the state, regional and city interests that all wanted a piece of Atlantic City.”
The city’s fortunes began improving under Whelan after Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat, decided to focus considerable state energy, talent and capital on redeveloping the city.
From 1990 to 2001, more than $666 million worth of state and local projects were built in the resort.
The new Atlantic City High School, Sandcastle Stadium, Atlantic City Expressway Connector and Convention Center all opened during his tenure.
Whelan also worked with community leaders to make the $300 million connector project possible, said former Councilwoman Barbara Hudgins, who served on City Council from 1990 to 2001. At the time, Steve Wynn and the Mirage Group wanted the tunnel so they could develop three to four casinos on the H-Tract, the site of the former city landfill off Huron Avenue. Then-casino mogul Donald Trump was against the project, fearing it would take business from his properties.
“He (Whelan) had a lot to do with how successful that project was. He worked very well with Steve Wynn and Donald Trump in keeping the peace,” Hudgins said. “He was a unifier and an honest politician.”
But at the same time, opponents of Whelan’s strategy of working with other powers referred to the compromises the mayor agreed to as a “quiet” state takeover of the resort. Those compromises paved the way for the takeover last year, which he supported, to the ire of his critics.
In November, the state was put in charge of the resort’s finances, following years of mismanagement.
Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Coursey, a member of City Council during Whelan’s tenure as mayor, said the sale of the airport was a major loss for the city.
“He sold the airport to the state for $11 million. At the time I thought that we could have gotten more,” Coursey said. “Even though we disagreed on things, I always thought that Jim’s heart was in the right place. Sometimes we disagree on how to reach those goals.”
Coursey said he disagreed with Whelan’s plan to build Sandcastle Stadium at Bader Field. The stadium, built for $15 million in 1996, now sits vacant after the Atlantic City Surf baseball team folded in 2009.
“At the time, I didn’t think that spending $3 million was a right decision,” Coursey said. “Whelan thought he was doing the right thing by trying to increase family entertainment. I would not say the stadium is a black eye — it was a lesson learned.”
But agree or not, the decisions Whelan made physically transformed the city.
Projects such as the baseball stadium and helping The Walk project get off the ground showed Whelan was interested in diversifying what the city had to offer, Perniciaro said.
“His most notable accomplishments, like The Walk and the Marina District — and even the baseball stadium — show an appreciation of the bigger picture, one of the city as a more livable place for both locals and visitors,” Perniciaro said.