ATLANTIC CITY — At one point during a long series of community presentations on the state’s plan for a Tourism District, CRDA interim Executive Director Susan Ney Thompson stepped aside to let her colleague explain one of the many nuances.
As she stood near the door of a classroom at the Carnegie Library, an audience member walked toward the door, patted her on the back and whispered, “You’ve got a lot of work to do.”
And it’s only just begun.
The tall task still ahead is no secret to Thompson. Executives of the state agency, charged with managing the new district, have been drowning in meetings with city and state officials during the day and residents at night as Tuesday’s launch nears.
The boundaries of the district have finally taken shape, and areas of contention will likely stay in the district. Multiple Casino Reinvestment Development Authority officials say the state-run zone will include Bader Field, the former airport and potential casino site city officials strongly oppose losing to the authority.
District borders will also expand to include Gardner’s Basin and extend along the Boardwalk all the way to Jackson Avenue, the border between Atlantic City and Ventnor. However, the controversial inclusion of the residential properties reaching to Kingston Avenue will be cut back to Lincoln Place, the location of the proposed Hard Rock casino project.
Many agree, however, that determining boundaries of the district is less of a challenge than devising a master plan within those areas.
Thompson and others at the CRDA have already begun discussions about a master plan for the district, which will range from development concepts and strategies to combatting engrained social issues such as homelessness.
As for deciding what aspect to attack first, different people have different targets.
Christie initially called for Atlantic City to be “clean and safe” by July 1, an ambitious deadline that many believe can be achieved by focusing on erasing visitors’ perception that the resort is not safe. Many believe that starts with addressing the city’s homeless population.
Lt. Col. Tom Gilbert, the State Police force’s new liaison to Atlantic City’s law enforcement, confirmed authorities performed their first sweep under the Boardwalk for vagrants Thursday. The sweeps are a routine service by the city, one that occurred about 150 times last year, but CRDA officials say the sweeps are the start of an enhanced focus on the Boardwalk, which will be their first priority.
“We’re going to start with the ... people who don’t belong under the Boardwalk,” said James Kehoe, chairman of the CRDA. “The aspirational goal is to have the Boardwalk in first-class condition. People have had enough of not having a venue like the Boardwalk be safe. It’s low-hanging fruit.”
That phrase has been recited a number of times during CRDA’s community meetings, emphasizing an understanding by the CRDA that officials can’t change the city overnight. That explains the authority’s back-peddling on initiatives officials previously endorsed but had less authority to act on, such as the effort to convert Atlantic and Pacific avenues to one-way streets.
Jon Hanson, head of the Christie-assembled commission that mapped out preliminary plans for the Tourism District, said the authority must adopt “a practical master plan” that focuses first on attainable development goals.
“Within six to 12 months from now, we need to see additional projects popping up in Atlantic City,” he said, referencing how he hopes to build on the momentum from Revel’s resumed construction. “Revel sort of jump-starts the new Atlantic City, but we need to build off of that.”
After the commission submitted its report to the governor, Christie extended its term to June 30. Since then, Hanson and his commission have been involved with arranging the agreement that secured final financing for Revel and ongoing discussions about the CRDA’s master plan.
Asked if he expects his term to be extended again to help advise the CRDA on its master plan, Hanson laughed and said, “That’s a great question. If asked, I, as well as the rest of my commissioners, would continue to serve because we are very dedicated to this.”
Beyond establishing the district’s borders, CRDA’s board meeting Tuesday will consist of technical house-cleaning measures that are required to get the district running. They include:
n Creating four new divisions at the authority, including sections to absorb the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority and the Atlantic City Special Improvement District, creating a land-use division and a community partnership division.
n Adopting Atlantic City’s municipal land-use law until the authority develops its own policies.
n Amending the budget to establish new employee positions at the authority, including multiple land-use officials such as a hearing officer, an administrative officer and a regulation enforcement officer.
n Entering into a contract with a leadership consultant tapped to conduct a national search for the CRDA’s new executive director.
Thompson, who previously served as CRDA’s chief operating officer, has spoken to officials with the Christie administration about the executive director position, but insiders have said she is not interested in keeping the post.
“I’m going to serve whatever job the governor wants me to serve,” Thompson said.
The interim director has received rave reviews from local residents and officials for her willingness to meet with a wide variety of people about the district and show a sincere interest in listening to every suggestion offered, no matter how extreme or unreasonable.
“Susan has done a terrific job,” Kehoe said.
One individual long rumored to be on the governor’s wish list is Chris Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corporation, an organization the Hanson commission modeled its report after. Paladino told The Press last week he is not in the running, but is serving as adviser to the district’s implementation.
Hanson said he met with Thompson about the position but would not discuss details. He said he would be willing to offer advice on filling the position, if asked.
Regardless, Hanson said he is confident that the commission’s vision expressed publicly last July will continue to be fulfilled moving forward.
“As I look at our report and see where we’re at today,” he said, “I’m pleased that, at least in concept, most, if not all, of our recommendations have been adopted.”
Why the Tourism District is important
For residents: While routine government services such as trash collection won’t change hands, aggressive development will be a primary goal within the Tourism District. Officials have said the increased use of eminent domain is “very possible.”
For businesses: Boardwalk businesses could see new strategies in police patrols along the walkway, and area businesses could soon see opportunities for small loans and assistance from the state.
For investors: State officials are hoping to send a message to the investment community that Atlantic City is hitting the reset button. The new district and state assistance could enhance the area’s value.
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