ATLANTIC CITY — After a decades-long absence, the internationally known diving horse act will return to the Steel Pier this summer as part of an overhaul approved for a Casino Reinvestment Development Authority loan Wednesday by the agency’s board — moments after the Tourism District Master Plan was adopted.
The CRDA’s $6 million contribution to the $20 million first phase of the Steel Pier improvement project is a prime example of what the Master Plan is intended to help accomplish in Atlantic City: economic recovery and realized potential by playing up — and improving on — its existing attributes and using government support to leverage private investment in the city.
“The mayor and (City) Council have always been supportive, but we have never seen a climate like this, with (all levels of) government,” said Tony Catanoso, one of the pier’s owners. “Instead of saying, ‘No, we can’t,’ they’ve expanded their vocabulary by one word: ‘Yes.’ We’ve never had that kind of attitude in Atlantic City in 20 years in business, and it’s totally driven from the top.”
Both the master plan and loan to Catanoso and his partners received unanimous support from the 15 CRDA board members (Nicholas Ribis and Debra DiLorenzo did not attend). They voted at the Atlantic City Convention Center on Wednesday, a deadline set by state law. Effective one year ago, those regulations also established the Tourism District and CRDA development powers within it, in addition to setting in motion other changes based in part on a report commissioned by Gov. Chris Christie to revive the resort beset by competition from nearby gaming markets and the recession.
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, was one of the main proponents of the legislation.
“This is beyond my wildest dreams, what we saw today. I’ve been … around since the pre-casino days. And more remarkable than the plan we saw today, as great as it is, is …the consensus behind it coming out of the gate. That doesn’t happen in Atlantic City. It gives me great hope that this isn’t just another set of pretty pictures,” said Whelan, referring to the succession of citywide development strategies drawn up over the years. “That this set of pretty pictures is going to become a reality.”
Formerly mayor of the city, Whelan still lives here and sat among the nearly 300 city residents, public officials, journalists and other stakeholders at the two-hour session. The meeting included a presentation by The Jerde Partnership, one of four companies working on the master plan.
“This master plan is a vision, a guide, for furthering the city’s success. The future of Atlantic City is guided by those who know it the best — you,” said Jerde Vice President David Sheldon to the audience. “We are the interpreters, the visionaries. We want to position Atlantic City as ... a city where there is no off-season.”
The $800,000 contract awarded to the consulting team, which is headed by Jones Lang LaSalle, includes ongoing engineering and other professional support CRDA officials expect to need as they implement the plan.
“No one expects this to be easy, but now we have a plan to provide direction,” said CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri.
There are three phases in all, with the long-term phase setting out suggestions that will be implemented five years or longer from now.
Bader Field, for example, is slated for development, but not until at least five years from now. The plan makes suggestions for how to do that — mixing residential and commercial uses perhaps, definitely maximizing waterfront access and green open spaces — but also advises continuing to host events there in the meantime.
State law also requires a progress report from the CRDA after the first, two-year-long phase of the plan, said CRDA Deputy Director Susan Thompson.
The three-year Steel Pier renovation plan calls for $102 million worth of upgrades to the 114-year-old structure that extends 1,000 feet into the ocean opposite the Boardwalk from the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.
By this summer, a beer garden, six new rides and eight new games will start operating beneath new lighting and spruced up, better-coordinated facades. The diving horse act — which last appeared in the summer of 1993 — will be up and running, along with other acts inside an amphitheater in the works, too.
By 2015, Catanoso and his partners hope to be operating an enclosed pier that’s 25 percent larger.
“Everyone’s on board,” Catanoso said. “The attitude, enthusiasm is there. I think Atlantic City is going to come back, just by the way people are acting.”
The plan’s approval means it will be available in its full form today, complete with underlying economic analysis supporting its new ideas and existing ones that were incorporated. But suggestions for Bader Field and many other of the plan’s components geared toward achieving that end were revealed during a series of public meetings during the past month. Those sessions were meant to answer questions and get feedback from residents, business owners and other stakeholders. Concerns and questions remain, however.
Dennis Konzelman, president of the Westside Civic Association, said once residents understand how they’ll be affected by proposed changes, they’ll want to see results quickly.”
“This is great and beautiful and exciting,” said Konzelman, whose neighborhood doesn’t fall within the boundaries of the Tourism District. “We need to see something happen, and we want to know what’s going to happen to us. We’re not in the Master Plan. So just don’t forget about us, the people who live outside of (the Tourism District).”
Business owners also objected to the plan’s push to get rid of widely used steel doors that they roll down or pull across their storefronts for overnight security. But some parts of the plan suggest changes that are universally supported and have long been recognized, such as the intent to redevelop Kentucky Avenue with a focus on the street’s legacy as a nightlife destination and focusing on Atlantic Avenue as the city’s main street. Other parts of the plan note best practices already are in place, such as in Gardner’s Basin, or advocate moving forward with existing plans, such as those for the Steel Pier.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford didn’t bite when a reporter asked him to respond to criticisms from Christie, a break from the jabs they’ve exchanged before, such as Langford comparing the state’s implementation of the Tourism District to South African apartheid.
“This is a great day for Atlantic City,” Langford said. “The governor’s a man just like I am. He’s entitled to his opinions. I don’t put too much stock in what he has to say.”
Christie released a statement that was similarly even-keeled.
“A successful, vibrant Atlantic City is vital to the economic growth of both the regional and state economies,” the statement read. “Exactly one year to the day of signing landmark legislation that established the Atlantic City Tourism District, we now have an ambitious, visionary road map that will transform Atlantic City and lead its comeback.”
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