Joe Kelly, 58, runs the Greater Atlantic City Chamber, the nonprofit that serves as the voice for the Atlantic County business community.
Although the organization does not make political donations, its main activities include lobbying for public policies and other mechanisms that create opportunities and a good environment for businesses. Kelly moved here from Toledo, Ohio, to take the job 14 years ago, when the local casino industry was booming.
Q: How can small, independently owned businesses take advantage of opportunities afforded by the growing focus on nongaming development in and around Atlantic City?
A: Startup for small businesses, not only in Atlantic City but everywhere, is challenging. I think the statistics are one in five — maybe more —close within the first five years. What we encourage is due diligence on the front end, making sure there is a need for the service and people are seeking the service.
Having said that, I do think our approach through the Chamber is we have a dotted line to an organization called CDC, Community Development Corp. And through that corporation, we want to gather up all the information that is available on assistance programs. The state has done a good job through their one-stop center. But I don’t think within Atlantic County there is a one-stop center. There’s the Small Business Development Center through Stockton that does a very good job, but we would like to bring the private sector to the table to be supportive ... (of) a revolving loan program where potentially it is a partnership with both the public and private sector lending funds to the small business.
Q: Where are you in the process to establish the CDC?
A: We are in discussions with the Small Business Development Center. I would like to see ... all of the information available and a good portal (established) within three months; three months after that, I would like to see the opportunity to start making loans.
Q: What would be the range and size of those loans?
A: We’re developing all of that. If we could raise $500,000 in the private sector and match it with public-sector funds, if we could have a loan review group that is driven through the private sector, meaning the banks, I think that that would be a good pool to start with.
The size loan, these could be as low as $20,000 loans. And it is important that the money is flexible. A lot of times, these loans are tied to fixed assets and not operational cost. For a small business, many times what they need is some startup for operational costs.
Q: Shortly after you came here there was a slight economic downturn following Sept. 11 — that was a hiccup compared to the last few years. Do you see in any way how that prior pattern of dip and upturn could be predictive of what might happen locally, even if it’s over a more gradual time frame?
A: I see growth moving forward. I think (Revel) is going to have huge impact on the marketplace. I think while Revel will have an impact on its own property, it will have a positive impact on other properties. I know that’s a bit different than the way some people look at it.
Q: You don’t believe it will cause between one and three casinos to close?
A: I am an advocate of growing the pie. I don’t approach business in a way that says, ‘How are we going to get our piece of that pie?’ Now, will things change? Things will absolutely change. Could casinos be used for different things other than casinos? I think so. So, I mean, the key to success will be how people cope with change.
Q: What other things can casino (buildings) be used for?
A: I’m not suggesting this is going to happen, but kind of stepping out of the box, could you create condos within a casino, and have a casino on the base floor along with restaurants and entertainment and not be reliant on room nights? Potentially. I think there is a huge market for second homes within this jurisdiction, within Atlantic City. At one time, we had identified 18 different projects prior to the downturn that were designed to be second homes that people could come to and enjoy a beach vacation.
Q: City leaders are concerned about how pending casino tax appeals are going to affect the (city government’s) revenue stream. It has been suggested that the industry, through contributions to the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, pay a surcharge of sorts to supplement (property tax revenue to support public safety). Do you think that is necessary or fair?
A: There are 327 police in place and ... it is clear to me that the city has prioritized having a police force at the right level. So without those kinds of incentives we’ve already seen that it is being addressed. Class II (police officers) will allow for additional police and patrols. I’ve heard of partnering with the casinos with existing security: taking the existing security within the casinos, and ... as it relates to the Boardwalk I think that makes a lot of sense.
Q: The challenges and rewards of the job have changed a lot over the years since you came here 14 years ago. There was a boom, then the recession and competition, now there are the Atlantic City Tourism District and attention from the state (including laws aimed at reviving the resort). Can you talk about how that evolved and changed your role?
A: When I first came in, we were managing growth. The casino industry had 30 years of one year being better than the year before. For the last five, we have been managing as a result of competition, as a result of the environment. So it has put the chamber in a position of needing to change along with that. I think the biggest thing that we saw is the advocacy role that we play. And there was a real need to serve as the voice of business and become more involved in public policy. We work very hard to make sure that the regulatory environment is fair for business and that we are doing everything we can to make sure that the appropriate incentives are there for investment.
Q: What was your role in developing the Tourism District legislation?
A: Starting with the governor, we were the feet on the ground … talk(ing) to public sector leadership both at a local and state level (about) the challenges that business is facing. Example being, the ability to have $30 million stay locally and be used towards marketing our marketplace has been significant. That was public policy, that was someone saying that the dollars in the past that have gone to the horse-racing industry need to stay local because things have changed. And now we can use those dollars to market our marketplace. And those are the kinds of things that we as a business group would advocate for, speak for. Things like the appropriate tax incentives for the Revel project to ensure that they were able to secure financing.
Q: To move out of Atlantic City, the NextGen (Aviation Research and Technology Park) project (in Egg Harbor Township) is something people have been excited about, but there are some major (financing) problems that surfaced recently, and there have been delays in construction. What specifically (is the chamber) doing with NextGen?
A: I think one of the things is that we have identified 60 businesses within the region that are now doing FAA research. With that group, one of our intentions is to work well with the existing business already tied to the FAA. And I think those business can help the research park by using (their) network to potentially attract folks that would be interested in coming into this site.
Q: I meant more on the government end, because it’s sort of up to them. If (officials) wanted to, they could write contracts so they require research to be conducted there.
A: You make a good point. I think having a presence on their board through (chamber) board chair (Sam Young) so that good information is shared is important. But then there’s the lobbying activity at the federal level, the business community through the chamber saying to (U.S. Rep.) Frank LoBiondo, R-Atlantic, “We need your support in bringing these federal funds to this marketplace.”
Q: What does the local business community need to do to help the NextGen Park project recover?
A: As far as the past for us, it’s just that: the past. I’m not saying that you don’t learn from the past, I’m not saying that you don’t respect the past. You do.
One of the things we learned is that that timeline was aggressive. The private sector tends to under-promise and over-deliver. Perhaps that’s the approach with NextGen moving forward: be realistic about what is doable based on the environment that you’re in. Everything was well-intended, but I think excitement about the opportunity perhaps set measures out there that were challenging and beyond people’s control.
What we need is to be focused is to get that level of funding at the federal level for the research that would allow someone to say, “I’m going after that federal grant, I’m going to do the research and the NextGen is a good place to do it at.”
That is why I prioritize at the federal level first and work with (LoBiondo) to make sure the resources are available — not just the immediate ones but moving forward — to fund NextGen.
Q: The Richard Stockton College is continually expanding its role and holdings all over South Jersey. How has that benefited the local business community?
A: To start with the construction industry: the expansion on Stockton’s main campus (in Galloway Township), extending services into Atlantic City and throughout (Atlantic) County, the Hammonton (satellite campus) project as well. Business sees education as one of the real opportunities to grow the market, and that is part of the growth we just have been talking about — and the diversifying of the market. So along with Stockton, Atlantic Cape Community College and the educational area, we view that sector as one of our true growth opportunities over the next very short term and longer term.
Q: You mentioned previously the consolidation of the Atlantic County and Atlantic City chambers that occurred five years ago. Can you tell me more about that?
A: As there has been more competition for the casinos and the direct impact of that on other businesses as well, employment — when you go through a challenging economy and increase competition, everybody seeks efficiencies, and we thought that at that time it made a lot of sense to consolidate the two organizations. They had almost identical mission statements, and we could deliver a better service countywide. Hard times cause you to pull together a little more.
Having said that ... I see people — and hopefully the chamber has provided some leadership in this regard — working together better now than (ever).
The example of (Atlantic City Police) Chief (Ernest) Jubilee and (Tourism District Commander) Tom Gilbert ... I’m very impressed with clean and safe as the first step of the district and their leadership and how they work well together. I know we talked about the challenges of the numbers and resources, but they are working well together. And not just within the district. When you talk to those two, it’s about fighting crime and keeping things clean and safer. They don’t draw lines ... they go to where it needs to be done. And I see that more and more. I see it in casino executives. I think people are starting to understand that they can have the autonomy to do what they need to do for their own organization, and at the same time they have the ability to sit down with others when there’s a common goal. I don’t know that in good times you have that same encouragement to sit down with others, and I think it’s in more of a challenging environment when you start to see the pooling of efforts.
I like what Kevin DeSanctis says about growing the pie and bringing more folks here. I love what he says about people having fun. I think fun starts at home. We all have to lighten up a little bit and work well together for the customer, too. If they see that in us, I think that they have more fun when they come and stay.
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