Atlantic City’s Midtown section was an ignored spot in the late 1980s.
“The area between Resorts and the Sands was known as a dead zone,” John Schultz explained.
In 1990, he and his partner, Gary Hill, formed the Midtown Business & Citizens Association.
“The feeling at that time was nobody was representing the Midtown area,” said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who was then mayor.
The group that started out trying to shed light on a small area of town has the spotlight now. Its annual luncheon, once attended by just a handful of people, drew more than 1,100 in January to welcome the new mayor — who also happens to be its longtime vice president.
The MBCA was different from the beginning. Rather than just joining together businesses, it wanted residents to be a part of it as well.
“All of these groups make up a community,” Hill said. “And they make a community stronger.”
The first meeting at the now-closed Mama Mott’s on New York Avenue had about 15 people. Irish Pub owner Cathy Burke was one of the first to put up funding, coming forward with a $1,000 check.
Soon, there were successes. When the city Health Department, for instance, wanted to charge $35 for inspections, the business owners balked — and filled the meeting chambers.
“We’re already paying taxes,” Schultz said they argued.
The city backed down.
The once voiceless area now had a united voice. And people took notice beyond Midtown.
“All of a sudden, all of these businesses wanted to join MBCA,” Schultz said.
So, in 1995, the “M” changed to Metropolitan.
“We didn’t want to change our stationary,” Hill said.
In the end, the words didn’t matter. The acronym is what stuck. And so did the group.
At this year’s annual Winter Kickoff luncheon, 1,104 people came to see new Mayor Don Guardian give his unofficial State of the City address. It has become a tradition for Atlantic City’s mayor to present his plans for the new year to the group first, before the official address before City Council.
“I always tried to respect council, making clear (the luncheon speech) wasn’t the State of the City,” said Whelan, who began what became a tradition. “It evolved into where subsequent mayors have done what they’ve done.”
That includes Guardian’s Power Point presentation of his plans at January’s luncheon. Before his election, Schultz and Hill said how he joked that he would be at the meeting either way: either as the new mayor or the old vice president — a post he’s had for about 15 years.
The current membership drive invites all area businesses, nonprofits and residents to join — including those beyond the city’s boundaries. Every casino but the Golden Nugget is a member.
“Whether you’re a citizen who wants to get active or you’re a business, you come to the MBCA,” Guardian said. “I think Gary, in particular, has been doing a phenomenal job in picking the right speakers and the right programs.”
Watching Hill go through the day, it’s no surprise that the group has grown.
The MBCA is just part of the group planning the mayor’s inaugural gala, set for Friday. But, Hill has taken up many of the tasks.
“I’m even involved in the fireworks,” he said of the public display sponsored by the Atlantic City Alliance. “If you want to know anything about fireworks, now I know.”
It’s difficult to distinguish how much work has been given to Hill and how much he has taken on. Somewhat of a perfectionist — and always seeming to go at full tilt — he tends to live by the mantra, “If you want something done right, you do it yourself.”
During a walk-through of Gallagher’s Steakhouse in Resorts — where the private after-party will be held — he quickly answered each question posed by Donna McCarthy, director of operations for Ark Atlantic City, which owns the restaurant. He didn’t seem worried, even on the things that remain uncertain.
The original guest list was at 75, but now 200 looks more realistic. But he brushed it off, convinced the restaurant will get its part and the guests will be happy.
At the Horizon Ballroom — where the main event will be held — Hill wondered about how big the dance floor will be. Big was what he asked for. And big was what Catering and Banquets Director Lisa Slotkin and the others gathered for the final discussions intended to do.
“Here comes our little glitch in the ointment,” Hill said, standing in the middle of the mostly empty ballroom.
The corporate 10-person tables have been popular. The estimated 10 are already at 15.
No problem, Slotkin assured him. Everything is fluid.
That’s how Hill seemed to move through his task, checking off a list that’s almost entirely in his head.
He moves easily from his work at the MBCA to charity work to the inaugural to teaming with other organizations for different events. Next year, he plans to start a public relations firm, 1616PR.
He basically does that anyway, as the MBCA’s executive director and community relations coordinator. He makes sure members get more than their annual fee worth of support. Dues range from $25 per year for area residents to $150 for casinos and businesses with 100 or more employees.
Money is raised through events and dues. And more than a quarter-million dollars have been given in scholarships to local students and teachers. About 17 students and a teacher each receive $1,500 scholarships each year.
“It helped me immensely,” said Bob Tarby, a 2002 scholarship recipient.
The lifelong Galloway Township resident used the money to help with his first year at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa.
As part of a vow he said those applying for the scholarships make, he returned to the area.
“Thankfully, that worked out,” said the orthodontist, who is building a house in Galloway Township. The 29-year-old works at Brayces, the same place he had his own orthodontic work done when he was a kid.
“It makes a big difference,” he said of the MBCA. “It instills, I think, the importance of local business and local autonomy.”
The group also runs on the understanding that people are busy. Events are limited to five or six per year. There are only two meetings, with voting done by email.
“It’s effective and it’s easy,” Schultz said of the group and being a member. “People enjoy being part of it.”
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