ATLANTIC CITY — The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority faced questions and criticism from more than 100 people during a meeting Monday to get feedback about the state-run Tourism District.
The forum is the first of five scheduled before the May 1 deadline to finalize the boundaries of the zone.
Nearly every person who spoke at the two-hour meeting asked how residents, elected officials, business owners and other local stakeholders can have a voice in decisions within the district and how to expand benefits into outlying neighborhoods.
Those speakers included Mayor Lorenzo Langford, who sat in the audience until the end of the meeting, when he addressed the crowd.
“There is collaboration between a master and a slave, but it doesn’t mean that it’s equitable, it doesn’t mean that it’s good,” he said. “We have been phased out of the process. Duly elected officials have been pushed aside in lieu of what? Folks who’ve been appointed and who are now going to appoint other people to look out for your best interests?”
Langford, who sits on the 15-member CRDA board, stressed that the agency is carrying out, but did not write, the state law that many residents have criticized as divisive. But he shared the view that city representation on the board and in other decision-making positions is limited.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room that has a problem with improving Atlantic City and the image of Atlantic City,” resident Robert Johnson said. “But the people with authority to make decisions are not from here, same with the board.”
The state law establishing the Tourism District also requires an advisory commission consisting of local residents and business owners as well as some state Planning Commission members chosen by the CRDA’s board.
The panel will monitor the CRDA’s budget and projects, and can have as many members as the board sees fit, CRDA interim executive director Susan Ney Thompson said.
As currently outlined, the Tourism District includes the city’s beaches, Boardwalk and two adjacent blocks, plus the Marina District and Bader Field. The zone is regulated by the CRDA, which will absorb the Atlantic City Special Improvement District and Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority into separate divisions. The agency will also create another arm dedicated to land use and development.
The CRDA can change the district’s boundaries before voting to finalize them. The agency supports adding Gardner’s Basin and excluding some sections of the city’s Chelsea neighborhood bordering Ventnor, Thompson said.
The goal is to make the area cleaner and safer, in addition to encouraging the development of nongaming diversions, she said.
“What do you do when you host a party at your home? You make sure it’s clean, you make sure you’ve got your provisions,” Thompson said. “We’re here. We’re ready to be the playground of the world.”
The CRDA will focus its resources going forward, Thompson said. The agency gets 1.25 percent of casinos’ gross annual revenue, totaling $1.8 billion since 1984. The CRDA has invested $1.5 billion of that into Atlantic City, said Paul Weiss, the agency’s chief counsel.
The law creating the Tourism District says more money must stay within the resort instead of going toward projects outside the region.
“The staff of (the) CRDA will have projects in our pipeline (from outside the city). Those commitments remain, but in terms of our resources, our priority is Atlantic City,” Thompson said. “We’re driving very hard to make this a success story.”
Developer Jeff Rosenberger asked whether he could face eminent domain after pouring millions into the property on Tennessee Avenue, where he intends to open a bar in the building that formerly housed Maloney’s Uptown Sports Bar and Grill.
“Currently, I step over hypodermic needles and condoms there, but I’m ready to open,” Rosenberger said.
Attendees also inquired about plans to encourage minority-business endeavors, spark urban redevelopment, engage youth, provide more job opportunities, ensure thorough planning and zoning reviews, and improve infrastructure.
The CRDA has not formed its master plan but is expected to tackle that after it sets the district’s boundaries.
But the agency has scheduled an investment conference April 13 to focus on nongaming development.
The CRDA also intends to partner with Atlantic Cape Community College to provide job readiness training, Thompson said.
“We have a growing understanding of the magnitude of the (unemployment) problem and the negative impact it has within those neighborhoods and on the tourism industry here. And since it’s a billion-dollar industry, it’s a real serious problem on a lot of levels,” Thompson said.
Another problem is the resentment among many local public officials and residents who feel the state has limited — if not taken away — their right and ability to fully govern themselves. That could be an obstacle to necessary cooperation moving forward.
“Do we have to put it in agreement and say, ‘This is how we’re going to collaborate?’ If that’s what it takes, we’ll do that. I know it’s easier said than done, but that’s the intent. Or maybe it’s a handshake,” Weiss said. “We want to get there, we need to get there.”
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