ATLANTIC CITY - A fledgling development group wants to restore Kentucky Avenue into an entertainment district that would offer lower-cost, smaller venue options than casinos typically provide.
Development group Polaris started pushing to redevelop Kentucky Avenue long before Nelson Johnson's "The Northside" came into the picture, but the book has reminded people of the area that was considered a seaside Harlem for its concentration of black clubs, restaurants and entertainment venues.
Stakeholders hope the slow, quiet, ongoing planning, funding acquisition and execution process will ultimately restore the strip to its former glory as a nightlife district that unifies the city.
The stretch that once drew droves of locals and tourists, regardless of race, to restaurants and nightclubs - Club Harlem and other venues featured Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong and other performers - "is now considered a dead zone," lifelong resident and former Atlantic City Board of Education President Cornell Davis said recently.
"You've had development take place all around it (and) the people are realizing that since the conception of casinos, that there has still not been a visible direct impact into the community," he said. "And the residents we're talking about, they're in Bungalow Park and the Marina District, what (was) considered the Northside," he said. "A lot of people don't even know there is life beyond Atlantic Avenue ... because it has been so underserved."
Davis is working on the Kentucky Avenue initiative with activist Steve Young. The pair formed Polaris specifically to handle negotiations and financial and other related matters.
Young has been meeting sporadically with city, the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority and other local officials about the concept for years, but redoubled his efforts recently amid publicity surrounding the publication of "The Northside" and the formation of the state Tourism District.
He hopes the Tourism District and other state-driven changes happening in the city won't mean yet another delay. Young blamed past inactivity on ever-changing government officials, CRDA's board investing outside the city and years of tumult created by federal investigations into city agencies.
Those included a probe that landed Davis in prison for nine months on a bribery conviction. He now works for Atlantic County's Prisoner Re-entry Program.
CRDA paid for a $200,000 feasibility study that wrapped in 2001. Not much more happened until September, when Redding's restaurant opened on the northeast corner of Pacific and Kentucky.
The addition of that anchor is key, but Polaris needs to revamp its development plan and CRDA has to amend its redevelopment agreement with Polaris, said Young and Susan Ney Thompson, interim executive director at CRDA.
Young declined to name other interested vendors due to ongoing negotiations, but said he has spoke with most property owners - some who could be asked to sell or make improvements - and that the response has been positive.
Meanwhile, he has met with other local stakeholders including Main Street Atlantic City Executive Director Pam Fields as well as Bobby Royal, dean of Atlantic Cape Community College, which has the main parking lot for its Charles Worthington Campus on Kentucky Avenue.
"We're happy someone is looking at that particular area, but we're pretty much just a stakeholder and advocating for them right now and applauding their efforts," Fields said. "As things go down the line and we see what they're doing and additional developments spinning off Reddings, there may be other partnerships we could do."
Fields said she expects the rich history of the street to generating interest and appreciation. That will happen simply because the revitalized street would offer something different.
"People who want to move to a city want a myriad of things to do in their town," said Fields, whose agency focuses on a 14-block section of Atlantic Avenue.
That's particularly critical right now because as the economy recovers, people who lost their jobs or houses in recent years are opening small businesses or moving into apartments or condos in downtown areas, she said.
"Those things that used to be a component of a city are coming back and it's a great time for the city to invest in it," she said.
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