ATLANTIC CITY - With the creation of the Tourism District, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is the most powerful entity in Atlantic City. And the person wielding that power is Susan Ney Thompson, the authority's interim executive director.
As the Governor's Office conducts a nationwide search to fill the director position permanently, officials say they won't make that appointment until after Labor Day. That means, regardless of the decision, Thompson will remain director for the district's first summer season.
In The Press of Atlantic City's new Sunday feature, "A conversation with ...," Thompson discusses the upcoming summer season, the grind to get the district established, the authority's new priorities and the challenges ahead.
Q: Can you talk to us a little bit about where you're from, where you got started and sort of moving up to the position you're in now?
A: Born in New Jersey, grew up in New Jersey, in Burlington County. Currently reside on the Jersey Shore in a small town near Toms River. Me and my family live along the Toms River. We like to sail. We love the beach. New Jersey is a great place to be living. We just are enjoying life.
Q: Did you come to Atlantic City when you were a child?
A: Actually, I did not. My grandmother, back in the early 1900s, stayed in Ventnor, and she would often tell me stories about being in Atlantic City as a young girl in the early 1900s. But my family? No, we didn't travel here. So my experience with Atlantic City is through the CRDA. I came here in 1989, joined as a project officer. Responded to an advertisement in The Press. Didn't know anybody down here. Noel Eisenstat was the executive director here, and at that time the CRDA was very involved with the implementation of the Northeast Inlet Redevelopment Plan.
Q: Do you recall the first time you set foot in Atlantic City?
A: I do not. I actually do not, no.
Q: Do you recall what your first impression of Atlantic City might have been?
A: Back in '89, when I came for the job, my impressions were that it's a town that has a lot of inconsistencies. It's a town that has a lot of new buildings and excitement around those new buildings _ the casino industry, obviously, the great Boardwalk. And at the same time, it's a town that has a lot of old, tired housing. It's a town that has a lot of industrial or semi-industrial uses mixed in with areas where people are trying to live. And it's a town that has some really interesting old buildings, many of which have been lost, but a few of which still stay, that speak back to something special. So, to me, Atlantic City has a very special vibe. It's a place that has a lot of history. It's a place where people who are here live and work. A lot of people feel passionately. They love the town. They love what has been here and they love what it can be. And I think for myself, that's why I've stayed for so many years, 22 years here at the authority. That's why I've stayed so long, because I recognize the value of this town and I recognize how it can grow.
Q: You mentioned the history of the town ... can you tell us a little bit about how the history of Atlantic City plays into the CRDA's future plans?
A: Absolutely. It helps inform us about what Atlantic City can be again. It was the queen of resorts; it was the world's favorite playground. It has a lot of history that is somewhat quirky. W.C. Fields got his start on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, we can't ignore that. That's wonderful. We have national figures that started here in Atlantic City. We have a history where prohibition didn't work in Atlantic City because this was a town that was sort of on an edge. And that's part of the history that we can embrace, it's nothing that we should shy away from. We have a very diverse cultural environment today, but that's got roots way back to the resort's infancy when the African-American community supported the resort as its workforce. The resort would close up every fall and the workforce would be idle for a period of time. Not all, but some of it. And that history is here and we need to recognize it and we need to embrace it. Because a lot of people who are not familiar with Atlantic City will come and say, "That's very unique, this place is special because special things have happened here."
Q: Why do you think it hasn't been embraced to the degree that it should be?
A: I think it's normal for people to want to try something new. I think it's part of the American culture to maybe not look back too far. We don't have that far to look back when you compare us to Europe or Asia. So I think in our country we tend to just move forward and not embrace the value of the past. I think as our country grows older, we have a greater appreciation for where we've been and why it should be embraced. So, as we look at different areas of Atlantic City, whether we're talking about the Northside, or Ducktown, or up in the Inlet where Starn's and Hackney's and Carson's are, all those great locations, or we're talking about the Boardwalk and why it's the country's first boardwalk, all of that tells a very unique story. And, again, I think that helps inform us about who we can be moving forward, because that's still here. All of that history is still here in the city.
Q: You guys obviously have a very tall task here at the CRDA. You've gotten over one hump already, a big one in terms of just creating the Tourism District. Can you talk a little bit about how, personally, how exhausting the process was for you? Can you maybe take us through one of those days?
A: A day in the life of the CRDA during the Tourism District launch. I would say challenging, rewarding, informative. When we were interfacing with people in the community, whether they were businesses or residents, old or young, we were out there learning, not just presenting. If it had just been a presentation of what we see and what we think and what we were going to do, it would have been pretty boring. So, the fact that we were out there listening and learning made it a really exciting opportunity for us, an exciting task. We came away from that with an appreciation of the fact that this town can step up. People here, both workforce, businesses, residents, they can step up. People mostly said to us they want to be involved in the future of Atlantic City. And what better news for us to hear than that, that we have people who are willing to get engaged, they want to be a part of problem solving, they want to be part of things moving forward and they want to advance the town. So, as we heard that, we became energized. So, as much as it was busy -- and it was, by the end of the night we looked tired, we were running out of logical sentences that connected together -- that still was very rewarding to be able to have those conversations.
Q: Was there one surprising thing or informative thing specifically that you learned from an individual resident through those meetings?
A: I can't say there's one because there's so much. I did get a really good appreciation for the variety of opinions in this town. There's no shortage of opinions. There's no shortage of ideas. I think from those conversations, and those we've been having after, it's very obvious that there's a lot of opportunity here. People have continued to come through the door on community development issues, on new business opportunities, things that they feel could be a new attraction in Atlantic City, there's a ton of great ideas out there. So, I found that, in general, one of the most exciting things, of how creative this town is and once you reach out there's lots of people ready to use their creativity and make things happen here.
Q: There's been a lot of talk about who will be the next executive director here. I've obviously talked to you a lot about it. Do you still have interest in the position?
A: Certainly. As I said, this is exciting and I'm very happy to be considered for the position. If there is somebody that, as a result of the search, can really bring value to the agency, I'm happy to work with that person. A lot of people have talked about the need for the executive director here to have knowledge of Atlantic City, I think that's very important. But I think it's equally important for the executive director to be able to look at other locations throughout the country and internationally to say, 'What's happening on the trends, what's happening with resort development, with tourism travel?' And if there's a person that wants that job, that brings value, brings perspective and is hard-working, well, then they should be here, and I'm happy to work with them.
Q: How much contact have you had with Tom Carver (the former executive director) since he's left?
A: I speak to him maybe once every couple of weeks, touch base occasionally.
Q: Were you seeking advice from him during that hectic few weeks?
A: It was more just to touch base. He's gotten a new job and he's very excited to be part of the aviation technology company that he's joined. So, we're just sort of collegial on conversations.
Q: How helpful was he to your tenure at the CRDA?
A: Tom was a great executive director. He loves this town. He really is an individual who wants to get down and get to business, and get the job done and see results. Real no nonsense person. He's really refreshing. He had a litany of expressions I had never heard before. He had a way of phrasing things that we hadn't heard, and that was a great part of him being here.
Q: Did he discuss his resignation with you before he announced it?
A: Actually, I did not know. I was in a meeting, and when I came out of the meeting, somebody showed me the letter that he had drafted and had been sent.
Q: Did you have a conversation with him after the fact?
A: Of course. I was surprised, but he felt strongly that it was time for him to go and he didn't want to be in the way. So, he felt that he needed to step aside and allow the governor to make the decision about who should lead the agency.
Q: Were you nervous or have any concerns about taking the role, even if it was on an interim basis, particularly with all of the new responsibilities?
A: Of course. There's a lot of unchartered water here. This hasn't been done before in this city. This is unique for a redevelopment authority. I would say I'm not as nervous about the work that we have to get done as much as the ambitious time frame that we're under. That's one of the biggest challenges. We've been a very small agency in the past and I really have to give credit to all the staff here. The staff here at the CRDA is working incredibly hard, but we thrive on hard work here, we really enjoy it. We like having very full days, we like being able to say we've made a difference, we got a problem solved, we got a new project launched, and that's exactly what we're doing right now.
Q: Is that ambitious time frame what you would say is probably the biggest concern, in terms of this actually possibly failing or backfiring in any way?
A: I think this is one of those situations where, unless you grab a hold of it and run with great ambition and focus, you could consider it while getting nothing done for a long time. You could debate for a long time what is the best direction to try to derive the perfect answer, and this town doesn't have that time. So, I think it's better that we have an ambitious schedule. I don't think it's unrealistic. I think the Atlantic City brand as a resort destination is something that needs immediate attention. There's a lot of great venues occurring right now in Atlantic City. But moving forward, we need to build that brand back. We need to sharpen our competitive edge against those competing venues, and time is of the essence. We're going to win this game of competition on the gaming level.
Q: How do you know when the Tourism District is a success?
A: That's a great question. I think when we see that we have a diversification of visitors, that we have new businesses coming into Atlantic City, and that includes people who are residents now beginning new businesses, and that we see Atlantic City residents more fully employed.
Q: Is there a different answer for when taxpayers will know that it's a success?
A: You've touched on something that's really important, because in the life of the authority, as we have embraced and advanced the mission of redevelopment using casino revenues, every time that we've completed a project and we've advanced and we've succeeded, the bar can be raised from the local perspective a little bit. How much housing is adequate? How many facilities for community development and community needs are necessary? And that landscape is constantly changing. So, to try to say that our job is actually done is a very difficult thing because no matter who you ask you'll get a different question, depending on their perspective. I think that it's very important to manage people's expectations.
Q: What will have to happen to ensure that the relationship between the CRDA and the city remains a cooperative relationship?
A: I think the best way to ensure that we have a long-term relationship of collaboration is development of projects and management systems that are mutually reinforcing; meaning that there are aspects that CRDA will be responsible for that enhance and complement what the city does, and there will be aspects that the city is responsible for that enhance what CRDA does. That takes some trust building. We've kept those communications wide open with the city. I respect members of council, the mayor's office, I've worked with a number of those individuals over the years in direct conversations. We all want the same thing. We all want to see the city succeed and to regain its position in the gaming market and expand its position for a resort destination market.
Q: Since you've been here, since '89, how would you characterize city government in terms of its management of the city? And I'm talking over the span of several administrations, not just this administration. Did you see a common theme, a common problem that needed to be fixed?
A: That's a very hard question because I'm not an insider at City Hall. Any time you see a governing body go through as much as has occurred at City Hall, you have to recognize that they're up against some really hard challenges. This industry came to a very small city. It's a billion-dollar industry. There's a lot of very sophisticated lawyers and financing individuals, developers, who really landed here on a city that needed to be well-prepared. I think if there's a trend, it's a trend to really help them manage that which is being imposed upon them. There's some discipline that's necessary moving forward. We all know that the city budget is a huge challenge. It's an enormous budget and it's very hard to reposition yourself from having that large budget, which a lot of people as employees of the city depend upon for their household income. It's very hard to restructure that.
Q: Do you see the city's budget decreasing in future years because of the new involvement of the CRDA and some of the duties that you guys are undertaking?
A: I don't see it as a direct result of us taking over the responsibilities that would normally be paid for by the city.
Q: Not the money that's put out for the Planning Department there?
A: They may, but what I truly feel is that the city has an opportunity to take the planning staff, the professionals in that office, take whatever percentage of their week that they have available to them and redirect their efforts from what they did within what's now the Tourism District and focus on the residential neighborhoods, focus on grant writing, focus on development needs, focus on building community watches, so that you're strengthening those neighborhoods and those residents.
Q: What specific type of development would you like to see at Bader Field?
A: I think that's a difficult question to answer today because today we need to focus on what's happening along the Boardwalk to strengthen the tourism in the Boardwalk area.
Q: So you don't see any sort of concentration at Bader Field any time in the near future?
A: I don't have a pre-conceived notion for what should happen at Bader Field. I think there are a number of scenarios that could play out. I think you've got great water frontage there. I think that that should be considered when you're looking at a development pattern there. I think that, in the short term, you've got a lot of open space and you could really use that on a temporary basis for some open recreational fields. Long term, as the city repositions itself, I think economic development opportunity will become clearer as to whether you really want to try to do a mixed-use development pattern there with housing and new tourism attractions, or whether you just want it as a tourism attraction without housing. There's a lot of different scenarios that I could see. It really pins on when is the right time to launch Bader as a major redevelopment site, and I don't think we're ready for that yet.
Q: But it's not necessarily just a super casino site?
A: Not in my mind, no.
Q: And the fact that the city went out to bid for this, has there been any development with that?
A: They do have an exclusive broker for the site and they did reach us and gave us an update as to what they might see happening there, what level of response that they've gotten. So, they have kept us in the loop after the launch, and we're happy to give them the feedback and just try to do some reality check on potential directions for the development there.
Q: Can you give us any detail as to the information that they gave you?
A: You know, it's not appropriate for me to do that. I would definitely encourage you to talk to the mayor about it.
Q: I think it was you that said the city has sort of been planned to death.
A: Yes, it has.
Q: I try not to roll my eyes when I hear words like "district" and when I see these sketches that look great during presentations. But how realistic is it that, in 10 years or so, that we'll actually see some of this happening and not just see that presentation dusty on a desktop at the CRDA?
A: Well, I think that's a valid concern. When we have looked recently at planning, we've said planning is great, but implementation is the desired outcome. But you have to try to set the goals of what you want as a result, and so you need the planning. But too often, you're right, planning stops with the plan. We feel that planning stops once you launch into implementation. And we actually did that and we're nationally acknowledged in the transportation sectors with transportation agencies that looked at the Atlantic City Regional Transportation Plan, and that had an implementation plan attached to it. Now, that plan was advanced under a much different scenario for Atlantic City because at that time we were about to boom with four major casino development sites and the recession hit and those problems didn't launch, but for Revel. So, we took that experience and we recognized that we really did something unique and with the master plan that must be developed for the Tourism District we've added, again, an implementation strategy component. So, the team that will be brought on will be required -- once all the beautiful pictures and the great ideas and the brainstorming sessions, once all that's done -- they have to get real with us to say, 'What's the priority within this district for development? Where are the near-term solutions to problems and what's the financing plan?' Because, without all of that, it is just a plan and the goal here is clearly to have major development in Atlantic City rolling through immediately and forward for the next 10 years.
Contact Michael Clark: 609-272-7204 Michael.Clark@pressofac.com