A year after plans emerged to commit millions of dollars to art installations in Atlantic City, two legislators are questioning why so much is being spent while more pressing needs in the Tourism District haven’t been addressed.

State Sen. Jim Whelan took aim at the estimated $12 million behind the art initiatives during his opening remarks Wednesday at the East Coast Gaming Congress. Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he’s frustrated to see dollars being spent on the arts when financing to advance the city is becoming more scarce.

“The question is: Is anybody asking for art? I don’t think so,” Whelan said.

The Atlantic City Alliance, created by Tourism District legislation to market the city, has championed the art projects intended to transform vacant lots into temporary installations that will be removed if interested developers emerge. Officials say transforming the blighted properties will make the city cleaner and safer while encouraging a new segment of tourists to consider coming to the resort.

“What’s being done fits into a bigger picture and is responsive to research that suggests we need to fix certain things in Atlantic City,” Alliance CEO Liza Cartmell said. “We also think it’s an important part of creating this image about what there is to do in Atlantic City. ... It’s so important for tourism to have a sense of arts and culture being present in a destination.”

Whelan said he has a hard time seeing how the market from New York City to Washington, D.C. — the prime area targeted by the Alliance’s “Do AC” campaign — would want to come to Atlantic City for art when they live closer to bigger and better artistic destinations.

He said financing would be better spent finding a permanent purpose for Bader Field and relocating the John Brooks Recovery Center to a location outside of the Tourism District. The center that runs drug-rehabilitation programs has said it would be agreeable to a move.

“If you drive down Pacific Avenue at a certain time of day, you will see dozens of, quite frankly, drug addicts milling around waiting for their treatment — not the image that you want to have as a tourist town,” Whelan said.

Casino Reinvestment Development Authority officials have said they’re working with the center to find a new location.

Reached later in the day, Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, echoed Whelan’s stance, saying it seems excessive to pour money into art installations that will only be taken down later.

“Enough is enough with the arts,” Amodeo said. “The arts are good. The arts will draw people, but we’re not the Smithsonian Institute.”

Nearly a year ago the CRDA committed $6 million to the art projects as well as the 3D light and sound show on Boardwalk Hall. The Alliance’s funding is flexible, but is estimated at roughly another $6 million. Earlier this month, the organizations announced some of the funding will also help create a sculpture walk on an existing path linking the Marina District casinos.

Two installations are currently in place, with the largest at the site of the former Sands Casino Hotel, a property that had stood vacant since the casino was demolished in 2007. Now in its place is Artlantic, a walkable art display featuring a sunken ship, grassy mounds with large illuminated words, and other sculptures.

Amodeo said that setup was overkill. His office received a number of complaints about the property when it was vacant, but the problem could have been fixed with a much less expensive plan, he said.

“The investment cleaned it up and made it look good, but now if somebody comes and buys that property, the (money) is down the tubes,” Amodeo said. “We could have gone in there and done sidewalks, done fences, done cosmetic, simple landscaping. I want to see money put to use for the long-term vision of Atlantic City.”

CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri defended the projects, saying art is just one component of a multi-pronged approach to addressing Gov. Chris Christie’s goal of making the Tourism District cleaner and safer. That includes addressing eyesore properties and encouraging a more walkable environment in the city. Cartmell also argued that the installations have brought additional free media coverage.

A $6 million commitment from the CRDA intended to span over several years is not contributing to financing difficulties for any other work that needs to be done in the district, he said.

“We are not making huge investments here that we’ll never be able to recover. It’s terribly unfair to what we’ve been doing,” Palmieri said referring to Whelan’s remarks. “We think the arts have a role to play, but we are not putting all of our eggs in one basket at all.”

Contact Jennifer Bogdan:

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