ATLANTIC CITY — Mayor Lorenzo Langford denounced plans by Senate Democrats to greatly expand the powers of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, calling it an attempt at an outright state takeover of Atlantic City.
Langford had previously welcomed the state’s intervention in the city as it was originally proposed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
“I am not in agreement with this plan,” Langford, a Democrat, said in an interview Tuesday with The Press of Atlantic City. “I resent it.”
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson also blasted the proposal. He contended that Senate Democrats were recklessly rushing significant changes through the Legislature in an effort to one-up Christie.
“When you consider the magnitude of what is being proposed, it is imperative that these things be properly thought through,” said Levinson, a Republican.
Langford and Levinson reacted to Democratic-sponsored legislation, approved Monday by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee, to overhaul the CRDA and New Jersey’s casino regulations. Lawmakers are debating plans for a state-controlled tourism district intended to help revive Atlantic City’s slumping casino industry.
Senate Democrats, headed by Jim Whelan of Atlantic County, want the CRDA, a state agency, to take charge of the tourism district. Under their proposal, the CRDA would create a master plan to promote economic development, clean up blighted areas and make the city safer for tourists. Democratic lawmakers also would have the CRDA oversee planning and zoning in the casino areas.
Langford, who as mayor sits on the CRDA’s 17-member board, argued that the Democratic plan gives the agency too much power. The mayor said he agrees with Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, that it would represent a state takeover of the city.
Instead, Langford is backing the governor’s plan for a public-private partnership between the casinos and government agencies to revitalize the city. He said that such a partnership would promote cooperation between different levels of government instead of having one state agency dominate the city’s casino and tourism areas.
“I think a public-private partnership would be better,” Langford said. “But I’m not prepared to define it now.”
Levinson questioned why the Senate committee did not seek more opinions before drafting and approving the landmark legislation. He also wondered how some of the members could have even read the bills as they were being crafted shortly before the vote.
“Show me the analysis that was done that supports the sweeping reorganization of these agencies. To the best of my knowledge there isn’t any,” Levinson said. “If there is no assurance that things will work better and may even be worse, then why do it? I agree with the comments of Sen. Shirley Turner, a Democrat member of the panel, who said publicly that she was concerned about acting too quickly. The legislators seem to be shooting from the hip and the consequences of getting things wrong could be catastrophic.”
Whelan, who chairs the Senate committee, said he would “be happy” to consider other proposals for reviving Atlantic City as the legislation moves forward.
“I can only say what I’ve been saying all along: I think it is consistent with what the governor has outlined in terms of his plans for Atlantic City, so I don’t think that it’s a rush job,” Whelan said. “I think we’re at a point where doing nothing is not a viable option.”
Democrats on Monday claimed their bills already had the governor’s tentative support, but aides to Christie declined to confirm that. On Tuesday, Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, said Christie supports most of the Democrats’ plan.
Although Langford was harshly critical, other CRDA officials reacted cautiously to the Senate plan or were more receptive. They said they are watching the legislative process unfold and have little to add until a final plan emerges from Trenton.
“We’re not getting too deeply concerned or involved with that right now,” said Thomas D. Carver, the CRDA’s executive director.
CRDA Chairman James B. Kehoe declined to comment other than to say that he sensed a final agreement between the Governor’s Office and the Legislature would come soon.
Don Marrandino, the president of the four Harrah’s Entertainment Inc. casinos in Atlantic City, said it might be better to expand the powers of the CRDA instead of creating an entirely new state agency to control the tourism district.
“It seems like a well-run organization, and the people who care about making this a better city serve on it,” said Marrandino, who is one of two casino representatives on the CRDA’s board.
The CRDA, created in 1984, uses casino revenue for housing projects and economic development in Atlantic City and other parts of New Jersey.
Langford has been critical of the CRDA in the past, both with its redevelopment choices and its management of Atlantic City land. Last month, The Press found that nearly half of the land owned by the government agency sits idle, with either no project assigned or no construction date in sight. That leaves the city with untaxable land and minimal development in the works.
The Mayor’s Office issued a statement in response to the newspaper report, saying the CRDA owns too much land and that it should not purchase city land if it has no specific plans to develop the property.
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