How fitting the arrival of spring should find the greater Atlantic City community in good spirits. The signs of the city’s rebirth are pushing up like daffodils, reminders that with a little help people get through tough periods to flourish again.
The mood in the region seems to be nearing a tipping point, with reasons for optimism starting to outweigh years of despair and resignation regarding Atlantic City. Time to shift from mere hope to realistic enthusiasm and support for the vigorous growth of early shoots of city redevelopment.
The city headed for bottom with the closing of four casinos in a year and the effective bankruptcy of city government. To provide stability, state and local officials arranged for a subsidized call center to bring jobs to the city and for Stockton University to move forward on an Atlantic City campus. Then the outlook dimmed further when the Trump Taj Mahal, struggling to regain its footing after reorganizing, closed as a result of a labor dispute.
What now looks like the start of a turnaround began, as it probably often does, with a handful of risk-taking entrepreneurs acting on the potential that many saw.
Among them were Bart Blatstein, the Philadelphia redeveloper who acquired the former Pier at Caesars and Showboat casino hotel, and John Longacre and Mark Callazzo, who funded and built businesses in a city that often seemed headed in the wrong direction.
Then the foundation was set last year by state leaders unshakably resolved, regardless of misguided opposition, to take over city finances and restore their soundness. In just over three months, the state effort started paying off — saving the indebted city about $93 million by renegotiating the tax refund it owed to Borgata Casino Hotel. S&P upgraded the city’s debt rating for the first time in years.
Two weeks later, the Taj joined the revival story when it was purchased by a partnership of Hard Rock International and two solid investors. That’s worth 3,000 jobs, 2,000 hotel rooms for the growing convention/meetings sector, and a business boost to the northeast end of the Boardwalk. Gov. Chris Christie credited the takeover effort: “There is no doubt that this purchase was encouraged by our efforts to stabilize the finances of the city government.”
After two more weeks, the closed Atlantic Club Casino Hotel was bought by a Ventnor-based group with plans to develop an indoor water park, hotel and restaurants.
Stockton’s false-start purchase of the Showboat dampened early enthusiasm for its city campus, but the project now is shaping up as the hoped-for transformer of the city’s southern end, enriching its economy, culture and even character. The university district already will include retail space and an urgent-care center, and more is being planned — probably extending west to Bader Field.
University officials told The Press editorial board city residents who can’t easily travel to Galloway Township are looking forward to the new educational opportunities. They’ll join the region’s degree-bearing core of 11,000 Stockton graduates, including many chief executives of businesses and organizations, according to President Harvey Kesselman. That influence will grow with a thriving A.C. campus.
These positive developments should encourage elected officials at all levels to build on the momentum by supporting efforts to balance the city budget and make the dreams of entrepreneurs a reality. Success breeds success, and with a little more it will become self-sustaining.