When the Stockton University Admissions Office sends acceptance notices to the prospective fall 2015 freshmen class, they include a box of saltwater taffy.

That small Jersey Shore treat sends a clear invitation: The College in the Pines is going to the beach, and you’re invited to come along.

The college’s “beach house” — the former Showboat Casino Hotel in Atlantic City — is getting a rapid makeover to be ready for students in September as a new Island Campus. One section will be operated privately as a hotel starting this summer.

President Herman J. Saatkamp has embraced the university’s role as an economic driver in a region searching for new sources of revenue.

Over the past five years, Stockton has opened small sites in Hammonton, Woodbine, Manahawkin and Atlantic City. It bought the former Verizon Building on Jimmie Leeds Road and the Seaview Resort and Golf Club in Galloway Township. It is in talks to buy the former Franklin Street School in Cape May.

But with the Island Campus, it is taking on its greatest long-term investment — converting a casino into a college.

Selling the shore

Saatkamp’s two immediate challenges are deciding what programs to offer in Atlantic City and recruiting students to fill the 1.7 million square feet of space, which will in effect double the square footage of the university.

The Island Campus will start small, with some courses offered over the summer at a reduced tuition rate.

Plans call for 400 upperclassmen and graduate students living in Atlantic City this fall, with about 1,200 to 1,500 students taking courses at the site. Enrollment should grow to between 4,500 and 6,000 students over the next five to 10 years.

SOSH Architects is developing the plans to convert casino and employee spaces into classrooms, cafeteria space and offices for faculty and staff. There are pages and pages of details, such as getting 46 elevators inspected and approved.

The initial $18 million investment will likely be at least doubled to prepare the site. Some money will come from the Stockton investment fund, and Saatkamp is working with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to get as much as $17 million toward academic renovations.

Saatkamp said programs will blend with the site. The House of Blues theater is ideal for performing arts programs. Hospitality, tourism and business programs could coordinate with hotel operations. Health services, now the largest major, could coordinate with AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center.

Faculty members are excited but also concerned, said Anne Pomeroy, a professor of philosophy and president of the Stockton Federation of Teachers. She is pleased by the robust representation of faculty on committees planning the programs but said they need more specifics.

“We are still waiting for clarification of who will be where and if we will have any choice,” she said. She said many concerns are practical — soundproofing for performing arts areas and night staff and security for graduate students, most of whom attend classes in the evening.

“It is a massive space,” Pomeroy said. “It will be challenging to pay the bills on a space that big.”

Other concerns are more programmatic and philosophical — how classes at the Atlantic City site will integrate with the main campus or whether entire programs will be moved. Even the Island Campus name is under consideration, with some faculty hoping it more specifically includes Atlantic City.

“What does this mean for the culture of Stockton?” Pomeroy said. “It could mean a significant change. It really does force you to focus on what you want the college to be.”

Stockton’s 2014 freshmen class of almost 1,200 students was an increase of more than 11 percent, a promising sign, but filling the equivalent of a brand new state college in just a few years is still a challenge.

The admissions department is aggressively recruiting in North Jersey, and Saatkamp said the name recognition of Atlantic City will help attract students from out of state and even outside the U.S. He said 20 percent of the faculty have international backgrounds.

Part of the community

Alongside the campus, Saatkamp envisions the growth of a University Park of homes, stores and businesses that would support the school and surrounding neighborhoods from the Boardwalk to Gardner’s Basin.

Saatkamp said he has already heard of interest in land around the site, and he plans to start spending more time in the city, getting to know the community and the people in it.

Beth Bagwell, executive director of the International Town and Gown Association, said relationships between a college and the town where it is located are beneficial but also a challenge. She said since Atlantic City is used to a large influx of tourists, the addition of college students should not be as disruptive as it might be in another town.

She said having the hotel on site is an innovative idea, and the college should work with the community to develop public and green spaces that everyone shares. Jobs and internships keep students in the area and help develop a community.

She also said the college must actively address the potential lure of gambling, bars and entertainment, working with students to keep them focused on their academics.

Stockton plans to operate the front tower of the Showboat as a 479-room hotel and is in talks with the Wyndam Hotel Group, which recently purchased Dolce Hotels and Resorts, the operator of Seaview. The goal is to open the hotel for the summer, ideally by Memorial Day. Saatkamp said once the site begins generating income, they can negotiate a payment in lieu of taxes with the city as they have with Galloway for the Seaview site.

The 850 rooms in the remaining two towers — dubbed Mayflower I and II in honor of the college’s first location at the Mayflower Hotel in Atlantic City — will house students during the academic year. If needed, those rooms could revert to hotel rooms in the summer, as is done at Seaview.

About 250 students live at Seaview this year, and Saatamp said they already anticipate needing housing for an additional 300 students this fall.

Officials in other towns where Stockton has opened a site say the college is an ideal neighbor — active and supportive of the community.

John Runfolo, executive director of the Hammonton Chamber of Commerce, said that beyond turning an eyesore into an asset, the college’s willingness to host events at Kramer Hall and support the city generates positivity.

“It’s still in its infancy,” he said of the site, which opened in 2013. “But you do see people walking around downtown with backpacks. It’s just a good feeling in town.”

Contact Diane D’Amico:


@ACPressDamico on Twitter

Print Director

Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.