At first, Stockton University student Spencer Szabady and his roommates didn’t even consider living in Atlantic City an option for the upcoming school year — they wanted to stay on the main campus in Galloway Township.
But an information session about student housing last semester changed their minds.
“It’s really just a new place to spread our wings,” Szabady, 20, of Brick Township, said Tuesday, standing before the glass-front residential building on the Boardwalk where he and his five roommates will live in September.
When Stockton opens next month to more than 1,000 students in the Chelsea section of Atlantic City, it will mark the beginning of a new era in the city known for sin. But it is also a homecoming for the nearly 50-year-old institution that got its start in the Mayflower hotel on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
What it is not, however, is a gamble, said Michelle McDonald, Stockton’s chief officer for academic programming in Atlantic City.
“We had target goals, and we pushed past them so early. We’re a sneeze away from 70 percent capacity in the academic courses. I don’t see this as a gamble at all. I’m really excited to see where we can go from here,” said McDonald, who also serves as associate vice president for academic affairs for the university.
Many in Atlantic City are all-in on the island campus, and are betting Stockton will help bring new life to a city that was, up until recently, down on its luck.
Jesse O. Kurtz, a Chelsea resident and 6th Ward city councilman, said Stockton took a risk coming to Atlantic City, and the city is the beneficiary.
“In Atlantic City, there is such a heavy reliance on one industry that to have another big player, namely education, come to fruition the way it is, that really benefits us in terms of making us well-rounded as a city,” Kurtz said.
He said it is now up to the city to be a good partner.
“I think that this is going to be as big as opening Boardwalk Hall,” said Carol Ruffu, president of the Chelsea Neighborhood Association. “Just to see people walking on the street, it’s just going to bring life back to that area of the city.”
Ruffu, an Atlantic City native with deep ties to the city’s history — her grandfather was mayor in 1927 — said the residents of Chelsea are ready for the gentrification of the neighborhood that spans more than two wards in the south end of town. She said residents want to see more food and shopping options, as well as improved streetscaping. Already, new businesses are opening, like Choice Bar on Albany Avenue, Chico & Sons on Ventnor Avenue and the aptly named Gateway Convenience store on Atlantic Avenue.
“There’s nothing negative about it, everything is positive,” said Ruffu, who is also a local real estate agent.
Szabady and his roommates will be some of the more than 500 students moving at the end of this month into the 150-unit beachfront residential building on Albany Avenue, which offers year-round housing.
“It’s honestly gorgeous, everything is brand new and I’m excited to go,” said communications major Trisha Quan, 21, of Middletown, one of Szabady’s roommates.
She said some students and parents were concerned about living in Atlantic City because of crime and nightlife distractions, but she and her roommates are not.
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“We think that it’s not as bad as people make it seem to be. I understand there are dangers on every campus, but that goes for everywhere,” she said. “My mom told me, ‘It’s up to you.’”
Across from the dorms on Atlantic Avenue sits the college’s academic building, where 1,279 students have signed up to take classes for the fall semester.
Inside the buildings are classrooms, a food court featuring Chartwells and Carluccio’s pizza from Northfield, and an urgent care open to the public. There will be a bookstore and an event hall, and indoor and outdoor spaces for students to congregate. Total construction costs for Stockton are about $176 million, said Brian Jackson, chief operating officer for the Atlantic City campus. That’s about $20 million more than the school first estimated in 2016.
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Jackson said it’s not just about what’s happening inside the Atlantic City campus buildings, but what will happen outside the buildings as well, as more businesses are drawn to the area and students begin to make themselves a part of the community.
“These are things we’re hoping and wishing for. It’s not just great for Stockton, it’s great for Atlantic City,” Jackson said.
Assistant Dean of Students for Atlantic City Haley Baum said she sees herself as an ambassador for the students, introducing them to her favorite offerings in the city and encouraging them to get out and become a part of the neighborhood.
“The goal of a liberal education is to expand your mind,” said Baum. “There’s so much around them that they can learn about and grow because of. That’s part of learning about yourself.”
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For university President Harvey Kesselman, a member of that first Stockton class in Atlantic City, the college is part of a renaissance for Atlantic City that began recently with developments such as the Tennessee Avenue project and the opening of the Hard Rock and Ocean Resort casinos.
“We’re not the panacea, but we’re part of the solution,” said Kesselman, standing on the steps of the academic building earlier this month. He said opening the campus in Atlantic City was “among the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life.”
Kesselman, who had just wrapped up a photo shoot with the New York Post for a story on Atlantic City and its so-called “rebirth,” said the city is not just important for Atlantic County, but also for the state of New Jersey.
“I’ve always argued that the health of this state is tied to this city,” said Kesselman, adding it might take some time to change perceptions, but it’s up to everyone to help.
To build up that reputation, Stockton is taking a cue from other anchor institutions, such as Rutgers-Camden and the University of Pennsylvania, by creating a community partnership. There will be expanded service-learning opportunities for students and continuing-education opportunities for residents.
University officials and city residents said having Stockton in Atlantic City will also serve as a way to stop out-migration from the area.
Quan agrees with that vision for Atlantic City.
“What I hope Stockton will do is want to be a part of the community,” Quan said. “My hopes are we fit in and are the missing piece of the puzzle, something that’s always been missing.”