ATLANTIC CITY — Months in the making, this city’s Tourism District plan is 300 pages of research, analysis and concepts, eagerly awaited by a public that hopes it will transform the city’s Boardwalk, waterfront and downtown.
But it may be a while before the plan, which includes the input of 1,600 residents, officials and stakeholders, will be read by the public. The plan’s overseers, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s board, approved it Wednesday. It is not yet available online.
However, the CRDA released a copy of the report Thursday to The Press of Atlantic City. In it are eight main principles that guide the plan’s finer details.
One is to try a tax holiday that has worked for other cities looking to stimulate the local retail sector. The plan recommends establishing set dates and percentages for tax waivers for local businesses, intended to be a “revitalization period” aimed at generating activity during weekdays and/or off-seasons.
Some ideas — such as focusing on the Boardwalk and beaches, continuing the city’s demolition program, enforcing zoning codes fairly and consistently, and offering Economic Redevelopment and Growth (ERG) grants and other incentives — may seem basic.
Others don’t offer a lot of guidance on solutions but document and quantify long-standing complaints.
Consultants agreed with what they described as a universal complaint among residents and business owners: Property taxes in the resort are too high. Research determined real estate taxes in Atlantic City are between 30 percent and 225 percent higher than those paid in Wildwood, Ocean City and other South Jersey shore towns. The consulting team stressed how important it is for the local government to address that issue, but did not offer advice on exactly how to do that.
And controversy seems certain, with suggested changes to zoning and land-use laws to crack down on nuisance properties that aren’t bad enough to be bulldozed and achieve uniformity in areas that might feature an adult-oriented business near social services and family attractions.
“It’s not as if … this thing (is set) in stone,” said Israel Posner, director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at Richard Stockton College. “It’s a framework. It structures where things make sense and sequences them in a way that looks at Atlantic City on a five- to 10-year horizon.”
Posner said he was among the more than 1,600 people CRDA officials estimate took an online survey designed to get feedback and ideas from people who could not make the four public sessions run by the state agency during January.
Unlike most people, however, Posner’s position afforded him the opportunity to speak directly with the consulting group headed by Jones Lang LaSalle. Based in Chicago, the international real estate and investment company worked on the $800,000 job with the Jerde Partnership, Birdsall Engineering and Hill-Wallack attorneys.
Some residents worry that the areas outside the district will not benefit from the plan.
David Greenblatt, a teacher who lives in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood, said he had similar concerns at first, but not anymore. Improvements in the Tourism District will boost the overall economy, increase job opportunities for residents, help mitigate some socio-economic issues and improve overall quality of life in the city, he reasoned.
“The stronger the Tourism District is, the stronger the community becomes,” said Greenblatt, who sits on the CRDA’s Tourism District Advisory Commission. “This is sort of a new beginning in Atlantic City, a first step in moving the city forward.”
Greenblatt said the support of Mayor Lorenzo Langford, who is a member of the CRDA board, also reassured him.
“I believe the mayor does speak for the community,” Greenblatt said. “We felt it was more like a joint effort with (him) on board.”
Langford, who did not return calls for comment Thursday, voted in favor of the plan Wednesday. That was the deadline set by state laws, partially the result of Gov. Chris Christie’s push to fix the resort and stabilize a stream of revenue the state has become dependent on since the advent of the gaming industry in Atlantic City more than three decades ago. Those laws also established the Tourism District and stripped the city government of planning and zoning authority within it.
The mayor did not support the Tourism District launch nine months ago after his fellow CRDA board members would not change its boundaries to remove Bader Field. Just before the board’s vote on the master plan Wednesday, he raised issues that again centered on the 142-acre former municipal airport.
The plan prescribes mixed-use development for the city-owned site five or more years from now. Langford wanted flexibility to pursue — if warranted — development that’s entirely residential, or all commercial. Or a mix of the two.
This time, he was successful and the plan went through without major conflicts, meeting the state deadline.
In Atlantic City, that’s rare.
“I have a good feeling, and I’ve been here for a long time,” said Pam Fields, executive director of Main Street Atlantic City. “No one could say anything negative. It was, ‘OK, we all agree something needs to be done and now there’s an urgency because all eyes are watching.’”
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