ATLANTIC CITY - More people will soon want to live, work and play in Atlantic City if the Tourism District launched last week fulfills the high hopes held by some.
Officials who had a hand in creating the district looked at economic redevelopment initiatives in New Brunswick, Las Vegas and other cities across the nation for inspiration.
The resulting framework doesn't copy any one of those models, but borrows elements from some. Despite criticisms that the plans might not work for Atlantic City, local stakeholders hope it will boost the resort's profile and realize its potential.
"The message that we're trying to put out, particularly with the downtown approach, is that if we build on successes we've had and create a thriving downtown, the entire city stands to benefit," CRDA project management director Jeremy Sunkett said.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority voted last week to include the casino strip, beaches, Boardwalk and high-potential parcels including Gardner's Basin, the Marina District and Bader Field in the Tourism District. The CRDA has a year to develop a master plan that will likely include components to facilitate arts, culture, and educational and medical development downtown.
Redevelopment strategies often focus on a specific area to avoid "watering down" their effect. But doing so can cause controversy over potential negative consequences, Sunkett said.
The Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency, for example, has used incentives such as tax breaks since 1986 to develop the downtown zone set apart from the Strip. Efforts focused on Fremont Street, the city's main drag known for its canopy light show.
That section of the city is regarded as a "success story," said Robert Lang, sociology professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
Lang rattled off the evidence. Online retail giant Amazon's Zappos division is relocating there. A new performing arts center will open next year. Discount retailers line urban streets serviced by rapid transit and bus lines. In addition to those businesses, small shops and bars, clubs and restaurants combine for an eclectic mix on Fremont outside its covered blocks.
"East Fremont Street has experienced neighborhood-level revival and is a little-known, but successful, Bohemian part of the city right now. It's full of hipsters," Lang said.
New Brunswick, likewise, turned things around. Public officials and business pillars such as Johnson & Johnson founded the nonprofit New Brunswick Development Corporation, or Devco, in 1976 in response to socioeconomic decline, said Chris Paladino, Devco's current president.
Devco's initial mission centered on reversing that decay and making New Brunswick a desirable place for international health care companies such as Johnson & Johnson and their employees to live and work, Paladino said.
Devco succeeded, but faced criticism for displacing minority and low-income households from parts of the city.
Some Atlantic City residents express similar sentiments. They complain that they don't share in the economic benefits generated by casinos and predict they will again be prevented from realizing advantages state intervention might bring.
But residents worried about displacement might consider the proliferation of empty, under-utilized parcels in the resort. In Las Vegas, vacant land absorbed most development. That helped prevent people from being forced out of their neighborhoods, Lang said.
"Chamber-of-commerce types tend to run the Redevelopment Agency - they focus on big-ticket items," Lang said. "But there's an idea that you're trying to address the bigger economic engine in the region. Luckily, it spilled over into more grass-roots redevelopment in places like East Fremont Street."
The Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency's plans do not directly address quality-of-life issues, Lang said. In New Brunswick, the nonprofit group New Brunswick Tomorrow focuses on social welfare in the city, and Devco also has a public-policy agenda guiding its initiatives, Paladino said.
The CRDA has already taken steps to make sure those issues aren't ignored as changes start happening within the Tourism District.
Without legislative prompting, the CRDA held hearings in Atlantic City recently to address concerns about the zone. The feedback prompted CRDA officials to create a fourth internal division to ensure continued community input. The CRDA also plans to give loans to small businesses, particularly those focused on addressing social welfare needs in the city.
The state laws creating the district gave the CRDA flexibility for these types of situations, said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic.
The agency's attention to residents' concerns has largely spared it from criticism by local elected officials and city stakeholders, feedback from the local community seems to indicate.
Mayors in New Brunswick were hands-on in launching Devco. In Las Vegas, mayors champion the redevelopment, Lang said.
Support for the Tourism District from local officials is lacking.
Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford, for example, has likened the state plan to South African apartheid and said the state is a pimp profiting off the resort. He cast the only vote against the creation of the district Tuesday.
More work ahead
The laws guiding the Tourism District and casino deregulation call for a re-evaluation two years from now. The assessment will likely consider whether safety, cleanliness and the investment climate have improved, Whelan said.
Temple University history professor Bryant Simon, an Atlantic City native, said some of the components of the state's plan may not work.
"In some places, these models worked differently. They got people on the street and created density in places where there was already valuable real estate. They hadn't been battered in the same way as Atlantic City has, so they could build on assets already had," Simon said.
New Brunswick, which Gov. Chris Christie has often held up as proof of the potential success the Tourism District could become, had more initial investment than Atlantic City, Simon said. Nonprofit players also engaged in the more vital industries of health care and education, he added.
Entertainment-driven development initiatives in Newark, Detroit and Baltimore are more comparable, he said. While those cities have attracted investment, intense internal socioeconomic and infrastructure disparities remain, he said.
Simon also questioned whether the casino industry is conducive to the CRDA's push to encourage cultural, medical and educational development in downtown Atlantic City.
"Gambling as an institution is an anti-urban kind of function. What casinos are meant to do is lock people inside and take their money," Simon said. "You want people out on the street so people feel comfortable and are spending."
Those unique challenges demand a custom approach in Atlantic City.
Whelan, a prime sponsor of legislation creating the district, said Las Vegas and New Brunswick, along with other "different models across the country," informed the district's framework, but it turned out to be unique.
"There was not a specific model we followed," said Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor. "We kind of invented our own."
Simon thinks planners should prioritize the Boardwalk because it is the best bet for setting Atlantic City apart.
"Other places have gambling and the ocean, but not the Boardwalk," he said.
The CRDA and ACCVA have already recognized that with completed and planned investments in facade, lighting and other improvements along the Boardwalk.
That helps, but tourists like Tony Lee noted the need for variety. On his first trip to Atlantic City from Manassas, Va., Lee compared the stretch to Virginia Beach, which he and his family visit regularly.
"I didn't know what to expect, but it seems like a lot of shops are repetitive," Lee said. "You've got four miles of Boardwalk and only, like, 10 different kinds of stores."
In Simon's view, the resort should leverage additional casino investment and make a longterm commitment to economic diversification and improving housing stock.
"That way, people who work in Atlantic City will want to live there as (they did) the past," he said.
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