ATLANTIC CITY — Amid one of the worst economic situations this city has faced, there have been big ideas for change.
Deregulation of the casino industry, eliminating layers of bureaucracy, accelerated efforts to improve city roads — the list goes on and will continue to as more people get involved.
But most of the public and private officials making the suggestions agree with one fundamental truth: Reinvigorating Atlantic City starts with the Boardwalk.
“What we have that Vegas doesn’t have, that Philly doesn’t have, that Chester doesn’t have, is the beach and the Boardwalk,” said Dennis Levinson, chief executive of Atlantic County. “When we bring people here, when they come here, this is something we have to capitalize on so they come back.”
An ongoing series of meetings organized by Mayor Lorenzo Langford has led to splintered groups brainstorming on areas that need improvement in the city. Kevin DeSanctis, the chairman and CEO of Revel Entertainment Group, heads a group focusing on city infrastructure and safety, and the Boardwalk has become a top priority.
“It’s the one thing that everyone is familiar with and understands,” said DeSanctis, whose company is slowly building the Boardwalk’s newest addition in the form of a $2.6 billion casino.
DeSanctis compared the Boardwalk with an average shopping mall, saying it offers patrons various businesses to choose from. And those merchants can be changed and replaced under a traditional mall operation. However, management of the Boardwalk doesn’t offer the same power.
“There’s really limited authority to get things done,” DeSanctis said.
‘The best boardwalk’
Critics say the government entities that oversee the Boardwalk add extra layers of bureaucracy, one reason DeSanctis’ committee is recommending a single power be assigned responsibility of the Boardwalk’s operation and its aesthetic presentation.
Bureaucratic roadblocks have already impeded attempts to improve and transform the famed walkway.
In October, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection denied requests to allow lower dunes next to the Boardwalk, a plea from the city’s Boardwalk Committee stemming from complaints about the blocked view of the ocean from the boards.
Asked about his position on the dunes, Langford said he is not wavering on his continued commitment to help the Boardwalk, but believed the dunes issue died with the department’s decree last year.
However, Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, said he plans to revisit the issue with the state, believing the new governor’s administration could see things differently.
“That gives us the viability to approach this once again,” Amodeo said of Gov. Chris Christie’s arrival. “This is an ongoing thing, and we’re not going to give up on it.”
But the simple wish of seeing the ocean from the Boardwalk is only the start to what some believe must be a complete redesign of the beachfront, from the railings to the seating to the businesses.
“We have to have the best boardwalk, not a boardwalk,” said Howard Kyle, Levinson’s chief of staff. “Just because it looks the way it did in the past, doesn’t mean it has to look that way in the future.”
But city officials say if the county wants change, it needs to contribute more than just ideas.
Levinson said a comprehensive plan for the Boardwalk could entice the county to allocate some funding to revitalizing the famed wooden walkway. However, he quickly redirected the discussion to other government agencies, such as the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, that should do their part.
CRDA officials have been involved in conversations with members of the mayor’s planning group, but steered away from commenting on specific future plans with the Boardwalk, instead focusing on their commitment in the past.
Susan Ney Thompson, the agency’s chief operating officer, pointed to a $50 million facade program that started five years ago and targeted improvements to multiple businesses in 14 different locations along the Boardwalk.
And although the question of funding is always an issue, the city’s government, facing a budget deficit of more than $9.5 million, is finding money to dedicate to improving the Boardwalk.
Business Administrator Michael Scott said needed repairs in front of Boardwalk Hall were set to start before last month’s blizzard hit and impeded construction plans. Scott said work will resume at the Boardwalk “as soon as the snow is cleared.” There were initially other phases planned for the Boardwalk’s repair, but Scott said future plans have not been set.
Safety of the boards
In the meantime, city officials are looking at other areas to revitalize and beautify around the wooden walkway. Scott confirmed that the city is working with Revel to schedule the demolition of the rear portion of Garden Pier, an aging structure connected to the Boardwalk that houses the city’s art center and historical museum.
The Boardwalk could also get help from a proposal that would redirect a portion of Revel’s future property tax payments to improve infrastructure around the project site. The Boardwalk is a major part of that plan, with $23 million potentially allotted for the demolition of an isolated and dilapidated section between Melrose and Caspian avenues, the renovation of boards from Rhode Island to North Madison avenues and bulkhead reconstruction.
That plan still requires the approval of the state; Revel attorneys say the approval process has recently slowed.
But beyond major overhaul projects, DeSanctis’ committee has discussed the need for general maintenance to continue throughout the year.
Officials hope the increased maintenance will be mirrored by an increased police presence to assure visitors that the walkway is safe.
Langford insisted any public safety concerns on the Boardwalk are merely a problem of perception, and accused the media of creating that concern through sensationalism.
“I didn’t create that perception, so it had to be you,” he told a reporter last week, referring to all local media.
The mayor said he could not provide any specific instances of sensationalized coverage of crime on the Boardwalk. He also would not offer any suggestions to combat the perception, other than saying it is an issue the media must deal with.
Police Chief John J. Mooney III agreed that the Boardwalk’s public safety issues rest more with people’s beliefs, rather than reality. He attributed that to the violent crime that occurs in other sections of the resort.
“There is very little violent crime that occurs on the Boardwalk. The statistics would show that,” the chief said, but exact figures only pertaining to incidents and complaints on the Boardwalk are not kept.
Some casino officials have argued that the way to combat either the perception or the reality is to increase police presence on the Boardwalk. Mooney said the department currently deploys bicycle patrols along the walkway and ATV patrols between the dunes and boards.
“But an increase in manpower is always a difficult balancing act,” Mooney said. “Deciding between the neighborhoods and the Boardwalk, it’s tough.”
Mooney said one way to increase presence is through establishing city-operated cameras at various spots along the boards. Mooney’s suggestion was part of a previously proposed surveillance program that has been discussed and debated for years, but often obstructed by money issues and city politics.
Little has changed
The years of talk about various Boardwalk issues have led to few significant changes.
In 1998, Kyle wrote in a local newsletter that the Boardwalk had “changed little in size and shape since it was laid out in its current form in 1896. A bold approach would be to rethink it in its entirety.”
He said Friday: “There’s a couple things I would change today. There’s a section where I talked about the businesses that make up the Boardwalk. I would throw in massage parlors.”
Kyle and many others are again talking about bold change today.
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