Arts meeting

Assemblyman Matthew Milam, chairman of the Assembly Tourism and Arts Committee, right, conducts a special public hearing on the southern New Jersey regional tourism industry, cultural and heritage attractions and fine and performing arts Wednesday at Dante Hall in Atlantic City.

Press photo by Sean M. Fitzgerald

Perceptions of Atlantic City are starting to improve, and support of the arts community could help contribute to its revival, a state Assembly committee was told by several speakers during a public hearing Wednesday in the city.

“The research is telling us Atlantic City is being seen as sophisticated ... less rundown,” said Jeff Guaracino, chief strategy officer for the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit funded entirely by the casino industry that is running the “Do AC” marketing campaign.

Over the years, the number of visits to the city has dropped substantially. Guaracino said research projections showed Atlantic City drawing 35 million visitors in 2006, but that fell to 29 million in 2010.

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“We’ve lost 6 million visitors,” he said. “We need to find new visitors, and our current visitors need to come back more frequently.”

A few months after the alliance initiated its ‘Do AC’ marketing campaign, the message appears to have resonated in areas such as New York and Baltimore, although nearby areas are more difficult, Guaracino said.

“The Philly market is going to be a tougher one to crack,” he said.

The Assembly Tourism and the Arts Committee, which normally meets in Trenton, scheduled Wednesday’s hearing in the Dante Hall Theater to learn more about arts and nongambling initiatives in the area.

“Atlantic City might be the focal point, but it’s helping the entire region,” said Assemblywoman DiAnne C. Gove, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic. “Let’s just not ‘Do AC,’ but focus on all of Jersey.”

Atlantic City accounts for a third of all tourism dollars generated in the state, according to officials. Across the state, tourism is the third-largest revenue stream, according to Assemblyman Matthew Milam, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, the committee chairman who helped organize the hearing.

“If Atlantic City is strong, the state is strong,” Milam said.

While gambling is a vital part of Atlantic City, visitors who are primarily interested in casinos comprise only 7 percent of the tourism market, according to Guaracino. The rest — 93 percent — were made up of those interested in more than just gambling.

Lance Fung, a New York-based art consultant, was recently hired by the alliance and Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to create art installations on vacant real estate lots as a way of removing blight while adding attractions. Fung, who also has worked to help local artists network, said he believes the city would appeal to artists if only they knew about it.

“It’s vibrant and exciting,” Fung said. “Artists will find enough grit to work with.”

Speakers from a wide range of areas, such as members of the cultural and arts community and wine industry representatives, also told the panel Wednesday about the progress they have made in their areas of expertise.

For instance, New Jersey ranks about 10th in the country in wine production.

“Once they taste (our wine), they are very impressed,” said Jim Quarella, operator of the Bellview Winery in Buena.

Maureen Bugdon, president of Atlantic City Race Course, also made a pitch for funds to help the track renovate, which might be possible if lawmakers restored a casino simulcasting fund that once went to benefit racetracks.

“My track has been the only self-sustaining track in the state,” she said.

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