ATLANTIC CITY - Should it be strictly a casino town? An upscale South Beach-style resort destination? A playground for families? Or perhaps something entirely different?
Whatever is decided, Atlantic City needs a clear vision for the future before it begins its next phase of redevelopment under the new state-controlled Tourism District, panelists told an investment forum Wednesday.
The fragile economy and stiff competition from gaming halls in surrounding states have forced Atlantic City to reinvent itself yet again as a tourist magnet, 33 years after casinos turned it into a gambling haven, the panelists said.
"Everybody agrees that Atlantic City has to change," said David Cordish, chairman of the Cordish Co., a Baltimore-based developer of casinos and retail-entertainment projects, including the Atlantic City shopping district known as The Walk.
Cordish was part of a panel discussion titled "Entertainment and Tourism: Atlantic City's New Business Model" at a forum sponsored by the Philadelphia-South Jersey Regional Council of the Urban Land Institute.
Developers, gaming executives, financial experts and government officials debated the city's future just as plans are taking shape for Gov. Chris Christie's new state-run Tourism District to oversee the casino zones, beaches and Boardwalk.
Developer Christopher DiGeorge, of DiGeorge Atlantic Properties LLC, suggested using Miami's South Beach section as a model for transforming Atlantic City into a more appealing tourist resort.
DiGeorge maintained Atlantic City is not yet ready to become a posh resort destination crowded with ultra-luxe hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons chains, but he added it could take on a "cheap chic" or "shabby chic" atmosphere.
He also said some of the weaker casinos must be sold off and redeveloped to expand the city's tourist base.
"They need to be reinvented; they need to be rebranded in some way," DiGeorge said.
Andrew Eisenstein, managing director of the Philadelphia development company Iron Stone Strategic Capital Partners, argued that the casinos suffer from a lack of creativity and all "seem the same."
"Some of these buildings don't need to be casinos anymore," Eisenstein said, asserting that the unprofitable gaming halls should be redeveloped for other uses.
Developer Tom Scannapieco, chief executive officer of Scannapieco Development Corp., called for tax abatements, zoning changes and easier access to land to encourage companies to build more housing in the city.
Scannapieco built the Sheraton convention center hotel in Atlantic City and the high-end Bella condominiums, among other projects. He said his vision for Atlantic City would be to "ring the beach with high rises or second homes."
Cordish pointed to The Walk as the type of noncasino project that can broaden Atlantic City's appeal beyond gambling and thrive as an attraction for both tourists and the local population.
"You have a living-proof example of how Atlantic City can prosper other than gaming," he said.
The Walk, a collection of stores, restaurants and nightclubs at the foot of the Atlantic City Expressway, transformed a formerly blighted part of town into a shopping and entertainment hub. Cordish's company has completed a third phase of expansion and is working on a fourth. Cordish said The Walk is averaging more than $500 in sales per square foot, making it one of the most successful retail centers in the country.
Figures compiled by Spectrum Gaming Group, a Linwood-based casino consulting firm, show that Atlantic City's nongaming revenue has been relatively immune to the sluggish economy and competition from casinos in surrounding states. Gaming revenue, on the other hand, has plummeted 30 percent from a peak of $5.2 billion in 2006 to $3.6 billion last year.
Don Marrandino, president of the Bally's, Caesars, Harrah's Resort and Showboat casinos owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp., said Atlantic City should pattern itself after Las Vegas, where nongaming revenue is as important as the money from the slot machines and table games.
In Atlantic City, gaming revenue represents about 90 percent of the casino industry's haul, with only 10 percent coming from nongaming sources, Marrandino said.
"We have to develop the Las Vegas model a little bit," he said.
All 11 casinos pitched in to fund Atlantic City's first rodeo in April and are working together again to finance what Marrandino said may be the country's largest Fourth of July fireworks show. Those are the types of events that are supposed to make the city more of a family-friendly destination, the panelists noted.
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