ATLANTIC CITY - An era of unprecedented state intervention has begun in Atlantic City.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority voted Tuesday to establish a jurisdiction zone known as the Tourism District, a vast chunk of the city targeted for rejuvenation under the supervision of the state agency.
"This is the last chance for Atlantic City," said James Kehoe, chairman of the CRDA board.
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The CRDA's vote established the district's boundaries, which have significantly expanded from those in the default map detailed in the state legislation that created the district earlier this year.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford cast the lone vote against creation of the district, continuing to challenge the inclusion of Bader Field, a 142-acre tract owned by the city.
"There is a feeling that part of (the plan) is about seizing control of the assets of Atlantic City," Langford said, adding that he has the support of the city's residents and several community groups.
The district now includes the entire Atlantic City Boardwalk; the Marina District; Gardner's Basin, which is an entertainment complex in the city's Northeast Inlet; and 10 roadways that lead into the district, including several on the city's northern end. But the new boundaries left out a residential neighborhood in the city's Chelsea section, following complaints from the city.
"I think it's one of the landmark days in Atlantic City (history)," said Susan Ney Thompson, interim executive director of the CRDA.
The board also approved a measure to restrict all of the authority's future assets and funds to Atlantic City. The authority previously dedicated portions of its funds to other areas of New Jersey. That issue has created controversy among Atlantic City residents in the past, particularly the decision to fund the development of a $1.3 million Yogi Berra Museum at Montclair State University and a $2 million allotment for the construction of a dormitory at Caldwell College, both in Essex County.
Other measures approved Tuesday included:
n The creation of four divisions to consolidate government operations in the district covering marketing, beautification, development and community outreach. Those divisions effectively absorb the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority and the Atlantic City Special Improvement District, while local government is stripped of its power to control planning and zoning within the district.
n An agreement to enter into a public-private partnership with the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit group headed by casino executives that will be responsible for the resort's new marketing campaign.
n Initiating a nationwide search for a permanent executive director.
The plan, conceived last year by a commission assembled by Gov. Chris Christie, was molded into law by the state Legislature and signed by the Christie in February. Tuesday's actions marked the end of a long creation process and the start of a much longer and more challenging implementation process.
Thompson has been touring the city since late March, visiting with various community groups to present the authority's plan and solicit suggestions and concerns about its implementation. Authority officials also have been meeting regularly to prepare logistically for the rearrangement and consolidation of government services, most notably stripping Atlantic City's local government of its authority to control planning and zoning issues within the district's borders.
City officials who attended the meeting Tuesday spoke out against those plans. Keith Mills, the city's planning director, called the action "unprecedented" and "fundamentally wrong." Some residents also said they felt like their power was being taken away by the state.
"I feel like I'm being violated, I really do," city resident Barbara Woodall said. "I voted for a mayor and a council. I've seen some of you, and you've seen me, but I don't see you at the dollar store. I don't see you at CVS."
Langford focused on Bader Field, renewing his threat of a lawsuit against the state, but said he would not give further details to avoid "tipping my hand." He made a motion to have the former municipal airport removed from the district, but a vote on the proposed amendment failed to garner any other supporters.
The mayor, who sits on the CRDA's board, noted that residents' concerns regarding the inclusion of Gardner's Basin and parts of the Lower Chelsea residential community were heard and adjustments were made accordingly. Kaleem Shabazz, a city resident and former city employee, questioned what message the CRDA would be sending to the area if it disregarded the wishes of Atlantic City officials.
"If the mayor, as a board member, has asked for that amendment, the City Council has asked for that amendment. I think that needs to be considered very strongly," he said. "What are the headlines going to be tomorrow? ‘Tourism District approved' or ‘Mayor rebuffed on amendment?'"
However, the administration's success in booking a major music festival at the site this summer created an argument for Thompson and the CRDA that it is already being used in a tourist-centric capacity.
"We think there are enhancements that we can bring to help the city reposition activities at Bader Field," Thompson said.
The resolutions were still being altered Tuesday morning after a flurry of activity among authority officials Monday night. At least some of those alterations were made after last-minute opposition from the ACSID's board of trustees, which complained about the state's takeover. The board voted to turn over its assets and most of its liabilities after more than five hours of negotiations over how many of its liabilities the authority would accept.
The absorption of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority will take much longer to accomplish. Part of that delay will be caused by the arduous task of getting consent from bond trustees and transferring ownership of the ACCVA's assets. That transfer includes the takeover of operations at Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center.
"We haven't gotten consent (from bondholders) yet," said Jeff Vasser, executive director of the ACCVA. "We haven't gotten approvals yet. As soon as we do, we'll move forward."
However, Vasser does expect to start planning for the transition. And the ACCVA is working to assure its clients that the reorganization will not affect them.
"ACCVA will be a division of CRDA from a legal point of view, but we're still the ones they'll come to. We're going to be the ones to service. Keep in mind we're booking conventions for 2015-16."
With executives falling under new leadership, city officials feeling weak and some residents suspicious, CRDA officials are still confident the disagreements and concerns will eventually subside and work will get done.
"The community has had their say. They know there's an open door here," chairman Kehoe said. "But this thing will not work unless we're a team."
Staff Writer Emily Previti contributed to this report.
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