The mayoral election in Atlantic City is kind of typical, with incumbent Don Guardian running on his record and challenger Frank Gilliam offering a different approach and vision — but in a city taken over by the state and still being stabilized.
Voters must think not only about what they want their revitalized city to be, but about who will best see to its interests during its ongoing dependence on state support and financial management.
Guardian is seeking reelection at a time of growing optimism for the city. As fate would have it, much of that stems from the state’s takeover a year ago, which he opposed and managed to delay for five months, then wound up working with. The state cut the city’s tax-appeal liability by $100 million, lured Hard Rock International’s major investment, and made it possible for the city to cut its local tax by 5 percent.
But Guardian also has a long list of city accomplishments that are helping the turnaround.
Faced with closing casinos and a budget collapse almost from the start of his term, he reduced the city’s workforce by 400, mostly through attrition. He said when he found just 12 of the city’s 52 recreation employees were working regularly, he kept them and laid off the rest.
Working with the state and Atlantic County, his administration brought Stockton Unversity’s Island Campus to the city, as well as South Jersey Industries’ headquarters.
In a city essentially bankrupt, a lot has been done with outside funding — paving streets, rebuilding part of the Boardwalk, reducing flooding and upgrading recreation facilities. The casinos are funding 45 Class II police officers, he said. Sandy aid helped build 300 affordable housing units, and state incentives are helping build another 300 mostly market rate units.
Guardian told The Press of Atlantic City Editorial Board he wants Stockton to have a full campus — with part of Bader Field and maybe even the former Atlantic Club casino hotel. He’s also trying to get a state coastal/ocean research center at Bader, and he’d like AtlantiCare to move its offices to a property next to its hospital.
He sees a revitalized city with more nongaming tourism, millennial residents and second-home owners.
His challenger, City Councilman Frank Gilliam, said he envisions an Atlantic City that is once again prosperous for all of its neighborhoods and communities.
“We lost our identity because of gaming,” he said, which brought fame and money but also crime, homelessness and drug addiction. Reestablishing the city as the World’s Favorite Playground will require better relations with the state, county and casinos than those of the current administration, he said.
Gilliam said the mayor and some council members have needlessly created rifts with the state officials they have to work with to get aid and concessions. He would convince the state that the city’s 40,000 residents alone can’t carry its budget and it needs to keep more of the hundreds of millions in taxes it sends to the state.
He said excess city spending has given the state the wrong idea about its needs. He would restructure the city’s debt, have an independent audit to get real budget numbers and then reduce spending “to the bare bones.”
The city remains unfriendly to business, he said, citing its unnecessary revocation of the interim development of Bader Field as an example. He would welcome corporate offices to the city and use the federal program linking visas with investment as an incentive.
Gilliam said the beach blocks back to Atlantic Avenue should have high-value housing like other shore resorts, the Boardwalk should be cleaned up through enforcement of city codes, and the Kushner property at Gardner’s Basin should be redeveloped.
When a new governor takes office next year, state oversight of Atlantic City will change, with different people in charge and helping decide how quickly and how far to wind down state influence.
That makes the decision for Atlantic City voters complex, considering how Gilliam or Guardian would work with a new administration as well as what they would get done to address the local issues so important to what remains, at heart, a small town.