ATLANTIC CITY - The head of the state agency that will control the resort's new Tourism District indicated Wednesday there are areas where the zone's boundaries could be changed.
Susan Ney Thompson, interim director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, said she agreed with arguments that the district reaches too far into residential neighborhoods in the city's Chelsea sections.
Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill into law in February establishing the district in an effort to target high-traffic tourism areas for improvement. The law includes boundaries of the state-run zone, which incorporates the Marina District, Bader Field and the Boardwalk reaching to Kingston Avenue, which is nearly in the neighboring city of Ventnor.
"There's no need to incorporate a large portion of that residential community," said Thompson, noting that Mayor Lorenzo Langford had made that argument to CRDA officials.
Thompson suggested moving that border in by about 12 blocks to the potential site of the Hard Rock Casino, which has indicated it would build a boutique gaming hall in Atlantic City if legally allowable. The casino is planned at the southern end of the Boardwalk, at the foot of the Route 40 entryway near the Atlantic City Hilton Casino Resort.
City Council President William "Speedy" Marsh said he was pleased to hear of the potential changes in the district's geography. He added that city officials are not looking only to minimize the district.
"I want to see Gardner's Basin in there," he said of the entertainment complex in the Northeast Inlet, which includes the Atlantic City Aquarium. "I've never understood why that wasn't part" of the district.
The discussion took place when Thompson appeared before City Council to generally discuss the state's plans and a need for community input on the district's borders.
The CRDA has a limited window to alter the geographical scope of the district and is expected to adopt changes at its April 19 meeting. Before that vote, the authority is holding five community meetings to solicit input from area residents.
Council Vice President Steven Moore urged residents to stay informed and attend as many meetings as possible.
"This is probably the single most important thing to happen to this city since casinos came," Moore said. "And maybe more defining than that. It's important that we know what we're doing, why it's being done and whether or not we like it."
As the CRDA gears up to launch the Tourism District, other preparations were put in motion Wednesday.
City legislators began the process Wednesday of repealing a 19-year-old ordinance that created the Atlantic City Special Improvement District as the organization becomes another tentacle of the expanding CRDA.
The SID, a nonprofit organization that works to improve the city's business community within a defined zone, is being absorbed by the CRDA under the Tourism District legislation.
The state bill establishing the Tourism District requires the city to repeal its ordinance establishing the SID. A second and final vote on the repeal is planned in two weeks.
At their April 19 meeting, CRDA board members are expected to vote to establish the authority's Special Improvement Division, along with absorbing the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority into a new division and creating another division dedicated to land use and development.
Thompson said the SID will continue to complement the maintenance services already provided by Atlantic City's Public Works Department.
"The only thing that changes is, through the SID, we will be able to contribute more services within the district," she said.
The SID's services will expand beyond its current district borders to reflect the Tourism District. The Special Improvement District currently includes major areas along the Boardwalk and Atlantic and Pacific avenues.
The city has power over the SID budget, but Atlantic City's businesses pay for the organization's operation. If a commercial property falls within the improvement district, they are required to pay a special assessment tax. That payment is set at $38 per $100,000 of assessed property value.
That funding mechanism is expected to stay in place as the SID is absorbed by the CRDA, but there are other parts of the organization's internal operations that could change.
Thompson said staffing levels will remain intact but the salaries of SID officials will be more thoroughly reviewed in the future.
The SID came under fire late last year as city officials began probing the organization's finances to determine its direction and whether the entity should exist at all. One of City Council's main focuses was salaries at the SID.
"It's been a long time coming," Councilman Moisse Delgado, one of the SID's critics, said after the vote.
The organization employs 98 people at a total annual cost of about $1.4 million, including salaries, wages, taxes and benefits. The group's top four executives collectively earn more than $488,500 of that total in salary alone.
SID Executive Director Don Guardian, who has been with the SID since its inception, is paid the organization's highest salary at $169,349 per year. That's about $65,000 more than Langford and just $6,000 less than Gov. Chris Christie makes.
Guardian was out of the office Wednesday and did not return multiple requests for an interview. But he has previously defended salaries at the SID, noting that neither he nor his employees receive a government pension.
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