Two years have passed since Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation mandating state control of Atlantic City’s most highly visited areas.
Major development projects have since been announced, a multimillion-dollar marketing campaign has begun and the resort’s Boardwalk has been staffed with ambassadors hoping to create a more welcoming environment.
Those are among the accomplishments officials say would not have been realized were it not for the overhaul Atlantic City saw in February 2011, when the governor signed legislation establishing a Tourism District and turning over much of the control of the city to the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. That same legislation created the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit marketing organization, investing $150 million over five years to market the resort.
Officials acknowledge that it’s difficult to attribute specific successes to the creation of the Tourism District, which includes the Boardwalk, beaches, casinos, The Walk, Marina District, Bader Field, Gardner’s Basin and 10 roads leading into the district. Still, they say, there’s no doubt that any success seen in the district is somehow tied to the changes made in the past two years.
“I can’t imagine that Bass Pro Shops, or the conference center at Harrah’s, or Margaritaville, or anything would have happened without the support of CRDA and without everyone working together in a concerted way,” said Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd Levenson Institute at Richard Stockton College. “A paradox in marketing is that when you’re a resort destination, the people who live there are least likely to see the change. It’s hard for the people who are in the market to ever understand.”
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said the work to be accomplished in the Tourism District is far from complete but noted that some signs of accomplishment can be seen in very basic changes, including recent development interests in Atlantic City. That’s essential to the city’s long-term future, he said.
“The one positive in the outgrowth of creating the Tourism District is that we’re starting to see some developer interest back in Atlantic City between Atlantic Club and other properties that may be in play,” said Whelan, a former mayor of the resort. “There are still a lot of challenges ahead. We have to be prepared to meet the competition.”
Christie’s vision for Atlantic City, first discussed in July 2010, painted a picture of an internationally recognizable destination. Achieving that would require making the city cleaner and safer, establishing more nongambling attractions and ramped up marketing efforts.
All of those things had been discussed previously, but with the governor’s involvement came momentum for new investment and reform in city planning and safety efforts. One of the earliest and most noticeable changes was made last year, when the CRDA revamped the Boardwalk Ambassadors program. Part hospitality staff and part neighborhood watch, the team was increased from 15 to 60 placed in highly visible neon uniforms in an effort to develop a cleaner, safer Boardwalk.
The past two years have also seen the announcement of several major development projects backed with some form of financing from the CRDA. Authority Executive Director John Palmieri said those projects — all of which boost non-gambling attractions in the city — are proof that the Tourism District is responsible for new successes. Resorts Casino Hotel will expand this summer to include Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville theme as the former Steeplechase Pier is rebuilt with a LandShark Bar & Grill, and a Margaritaville Cafe and associated gambling will be added inside the casino.
Bass Pro Shops, a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, has plans to begin construction this year on a multistory property so large that it will serve as the entire final phase of development for Atlantic City’s outlets. Meanwhile, Harrah’s Resort is expected to start construction early this year on a $134 million, Las Vegas-style conference center that officials say will allow the resort to compete for business meetings held by Fortune 500 companies currently drawn to other destinations.
“Everyone is very much concerned with us marking progress. The governor’s team is thoughtful and deliberate and is very much in tune with what’s going on,” said Palmieri, who took over the agency’s lead role in October 2011. “The challenges here are not insignificant. There’s been a sense of urgency that’s been appropriate to the situation, and we’ve seen progress.”
That sense of urgency has been clear even during recent CRDA meetings. When the authority moved to consider a $45 million contribution to the Harrah’s project last year, Trump Entertainment Resorts CEO Robert Griffin, also a CRDA board member, initially questioned the potential investment. Given that the CRDA provided financing for Resorts’ Margaritaville project and was considering support of the Harrah’s project, Griffin said the rules for investment needed to be more clearly defined for all casinos.
“Not everybody has equity to put in,” Griffin said at the time. “I think the biggest issue is what are the rules of the road for the casinos going forward? How are we going to determine what projects are approved for which amounts?”
CRDA officials said those concerns were fair but would not be reviewed immediately, citing the governor’s goals for progress in the resort. The conference center project, which later received CRDA financing, would directly address Christie’s goal of bringing more conventions and conferences to the city, officials said.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said that while certain projects might address specific goals, the impetus for change is seen on a larger scale.
“Creating the Tourism District in the first place tells casino workers that New Jersey is serious about keeping their jobs, tells visitors we’re committed to making Atlantic City a world-class destination, and tells investors that this is still a great place to put your money,” Brown said.
Most recently, officials have placed an emphasis on creating a specific Arts District within the city and more broadly placing a new emphasis on the arts. Stakeholders have pointed to that change as one of the most noticeable in the city. The alliance is in the process of transforming some of the city’s eyesores, highly visible vacant properties, into grandiose temporary art installations. The former site of the Sands Casino Hotel is now home to a massive pirate ship and an installation of inspirational words.
Meanwhile, the CRDA opted to forgo plans to add new retail operations on the first floor of its new parking garage on Fairmount Avenue after momentum emerged to turn it into an art retail space where the public could watch artists creating their work and purchase the pieces.
“The Arts District, although it’s not a panacea, is part of an overall picture that will continue to make Atlantic City a world-class destination resort,” Brown said. “The ACA has (curator) Lance Fung on board. It adds instant credibility to our endeavors to make the arts part of the rejuvenation of the Tourism District.”
Still, much work remains to be done, officials said. Palmieri pointed to a number of tasks less focused on landing specific development prospects. Key in the CRDA’s work in the coming year will be a push to either relocate or reorganize social service organizations, such as the John Brooks Recovery Center and Sister Jean’s Kitchen, currently operating within the Tourism District.
The CRDA will also be working with the city to address code violations. The legislation that created the Tourism District left code enforcement to city government. However, given the high number of problem properties, the CRDA is looking into alternatives, including providing financing to the city to increase code enforcement.
“In the end, there needs to be a larger presence of code enforcement. There are boarded-up buildings and dilapidated buildings, and that is not the image we want to send in Atlantic City,” Palmieri said. “We can’t have a district that looks like hell.”
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