ATLANTIC CITY - The boundaries are set. The divisions are created. The powers are secured. All the tools are in place to begin the operation of the Tourism District, except one major piece: the leader.
How much can actually be accomplished without a permanent executive director in place at the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency charged with operating the new district?
Susan Ney Thompson, the authority's interim leader, says the agency will not delay its work in order to consult with a new executive director.
"We're not going to slow this process down," Thompson said recently. "Whoever it is, they're going to have to catch up. We've got a lot to do."
The search for a new executive director has only just begun, one that officials expect will take at least 120 days. But most Atlantic City stakeholders say that work can't wait.
The CRDA is focusing on crafting a master plan for the district and combating homelessness and public safety perceptions on the Boardwalk. The need for quick work and maintained momentum is mostly an effort to promote change with the hope of sending a strong message to investors and sparking development.
However, CRDA board members differ in their expectations of what will be accomplished before a new director is in place.
Howard Kyle, one of the board's newer members, said he expected the logistical and administrative work to be the most appropriate duties performed in the interim.
"There are a lot of administrative tasks and organization things that have to be done in advance, rather than making major policy decisions," Kyle said. "With the establishment of these new divisions, I think a lot of the work will be administrative, budgetary and personnel."
However, the board's chairman, James Kehoe, said he expects major developments and improvements under Thompson's watch.
"There are a whole lot of things that are on the agenda to get in motion," he said, noting the recent start of homeless sweeps under the city's Boardwalk and acquiring funding to install the infrastructure necessary to improve traffic signalization along Atlantic and Pacific avenues. "Susan has full authority. And right now we're looking for the low-hanging fruit to show that we're going to get things done. I don't think any incoming director would object to that."
The authority's board members passed a measure this week awarding a $100,000 contract to Heidrick and Struggles, a Chicago-based executive search firm. Officials at the firm declined to discuss the parameters of their search Wednesday.
Despite the national search, Thompson is still considered a candidate. She acknowledged previously meeting with officials in the Governor's Office about the position.
"I have been very clear. I fully support a search," Thompson said. "I think a transparent process is entirely appropriate. I think getting the best, hard-working, result-oriented team for Atlantic City is the goal. So, no matter what position I take on that team, as long as we get the result of a hard-working team and we get the work done, I think it's fantastic."
James Garnett, a professor of government affairs at Rutgers University, said that feeling of teamwork could collapse if the new director puts ego before duty.
"People like to show that he or she has made a difference and that that difference can be recognized," he said. "There is a tendency to make changes. Sometimes those changes are superficial or counterproductive. That's what any new director would do well to guard against - change for change's sake."
Republican Gov. Chris Christie's wish to conduct a national search came after some preliminary interviews with suggested candidates. Kyle was one person interviewed for the job, though he now says he does not consider himself a candidate.
Some area officials privately say they believe the Christie administration is against seeing someone from the Atlantic City region take the job, with hopes of getting an outsider with a fresh perspective to combat the city's woes.
Assemblyman Vince Polistina, R-Atlantic, discounted that belief, but said the administration could be holding out for a prominent name.
"I don't think there is anyone in the Governor's Office who would be against someone from down here leading the authority," said Polistina, who has been in contact with the administration about possible candidates. "I think if they can find someone with some name recognition to come in and do the job, that might be somebody they might select."
Garnett said there are two aspects of an agency's leadership that an incoming director should assess before joining: style and performance.
The performance of the authority has yet to be determined, given the wide range of new responsibilties with which the agency is charged. The authority's style is arguably what has distinguished Thompson's time at the authority's helm.
Thompson, who has been with the agency since 1989, has a soft-spoken demeanor, but a hard-nosed stance on issues she feels strongly about. She's also shown her willingness to listen and address the concerns of the community. That community has responded with resounding praise.
During Tuesday's board meeting, various residents and community leaders voiced their support for Thompson as executive director, including an endorsement by Mayor Lorenzo Langford, who has opposed the Tourism District plan, but not Thompson's efforts to implement it.
Board members also publicly showed their support for Thompson to continue in her position, including Kyle and Kehoe. In fact, the measure to hire a consultant for an executive search was the most contested measure of Tuesday's long list of major actions. The resolution was narrowly approved.
"I've seen a lot of commissioners come and go," said Steve Young, a city activist. "I don't know how you can think about spending that money when you can just look over your shoulder and hire her right away."
With that, he asked those in the audience to stand if they supported keeping Thompson on as executive director. Few remained in their seats, while those standing erupted in applause.
"I am not one who seeks the spotlight, so I felt a little bit uncomfortable, to be quite honest," Thompson told The Press. "I know all of those people and I just think it was lovely that they took the time and shared their thoughts."
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