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N.J. first lady Murphy announces A.C. to host Family Festival in September

High rates of infant mortality and maternal deaths from prenatal complications, particularly for black children and mothers, were among the reasons the governor’s administration made improving healthcare access and outcomes for residents a focus of the Atlantic City transition.

New Jersey first lady Tammy Murphy, while visiting three church congregations in Atlantic City and Pleasantville on Sunday morning, called the state’s mortality statistics for African American women and babies “dire,” and implored the community to help spread awareness about available help.

Murphy announced that Atlantic City will host Nurture NJ’s free Family Festival in September where parents and guardians can receive information on prenatal care and doulas, blood pressure and sugar screenings, eye exams, pediatric services, mental health and addiction services, food and housing assistance programs, energy assistance programs and child care centers from state, county and local providers.

The Atlantic City Family Festival will take place at the Pennsylvania Avenue School from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 7.

Murphy said black mothers were five times as likely to die due to pregnancy complications than a white woman, and African American infants were three times more likely to die in their first year of life than a white baby.

“This is the widest racial disparity in the nation, and it’s totally unacceptable,” she said. “While we have a long road ahead in dismantling the systemic racism that has led to this abhorrent discrepancy, I am determined to continue to work with all of you to close this gap and protect out mothers and babies.”

According to Nurture NJ, the state’s maternal mortality rates are among the worst in the nation. New Jersey ranks 45th in maternal deaths, according to the United Health Foundation, and 37 women die, on average, for every 100,000 live births in the state, compared to 20 nationally.

Nurture NJ is Murphy’s statewide awareness campaign focused on infant and maternal health care. Nurture NJ has held other Family Festivals in Newark, Paterson, Camden and Trenton.

Schools worry how changes to federal food assistance may affect free lunches

A federal proposal to change eligibility rules for food assistance benefits has drawn concerns from New Jersey legislators, childhood hunger advocates and school officials.

Last month, the United States Department of Agriculture unveiled a proposal to limit automatic eligibility for federal food subsidies to only households that receive substantial, ongoing Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)-funded benefits. Shortly after the proposal was announced, it was revealed that the change would impact 3.1 million people receiving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, including 68,000 in New Jersey.

What’s uncertain now is how the rule change will impact students who receive free and reduced-price lunches at school, as well as local school districts where funding is based partially on its free and reduced lunch populations.

In New Jersey, 446,775 students receive free lunch and 66,295 receive reduced-price lunch based on a combination of direct certification from the Department of Agriculture and paper applications submitted each school year.

The effects may extend beyond the lunchroom. The number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals is used to determine Title I federal funding for schools, state aid, and eligibility for grants.

“It’s going to be a domino effect throughout the whole system,” Vineland school food service director Purvesh Patel said.

Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, said that it’s difficult to determine how many of those students might be impacted by the rule change.

She said that of the New Jersey residents who would be kicked off the SNAP program, 26,000 were younger than 18.

“This really will have an impact and that is being downplayed,” she said.

LaTourette said some children and families may still qualify for free or reduced price meals, but they will no longer be directly certified, meaning their parents will have to fill out paper applications for eligibility.

In Vineland, where 52% of students receive free meals and 6% receive reduced-price meals, Patel said they are monitoring the proposed rule to see where it goes. Forty percent of the students there are directly certified.

“But I can tell you, off the bat, it will affect our population here as far as free meal status,” he said.

Patel said Vineland plans to revamp its communications to parents about paper applications for free and reduced-price meals to ensure that no student is left hungry.

He said the food service program will likely lose some of its federal reimbursements per meal because of the change.

Wildwood Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings, whose district participates in the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) and receives 100% reimbursement through the federal government, said he is also unsure of the local impact.

Currently, 74% of students there are eligible for free lunch and 2% for reduced. The CEP allows a district to provide free lunch to all students due to its already high percentage of eligibility.

LaTourette said some schools may fall out of eligibility for CEP or for full funding if the rules are approved, and may discontinue universal food service programs.

“The ripple effect I think could be dramatic,” she said. “This cut in general and making up for the loss of meals in the home and in the school is not something that any charity in the state of New Jersey could fill the gap on. The numbers are just too big.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that proposed rule change will close a “loophole” used to bypass important eligibility guideline.

The USDA said the changes were inspired after a Minnesota millionaire last year revealed he received SNAP benefits for more than year due to his state’s guidelines, which based eligibility only off of income and not assets. New Jersey’s eligibility rules are similar to Minnesota.

LaTourette said it is wrong to call the automatic eligibility provisions from states a “loophole.”

“It’s simply a way of trying to extend benefits to people who clearly need them and are working to keep body and soul together,” she said.

U.S. Rep. Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, who sits on the Agricultural Committee for the House of Representatives said the legislators have expressed concern over the changes, which he said would have a bigger impact on South Jersey than in other areas of the state because of the economic conditions, rates of child poverty and per capita incomes.

“You want to make sure kids are obviously being fed properly and one of the problems is that this really hits those kids who fall into working families categories, people who are working who are really giving it their best but because of their income being lower receive these benefits,” Van Drew said.

He said this should be revisited through legislation, although he said it would likely never advance due to extreme partisanship in Congress. According to reports, a similar rule change was already blocked in Congress last year when it passed the Farm Bill.

Those interested can comment on the proposed rule through The comment period will be open for 60 days.

Northfield's Cresson Hill apartments almost ready for residents

NORTHFIELD — The land on Cresson Avenue behind the Tilton Shopping Center sat undeveloped for decades.

Three years ago, the city’s Planning Board gave major site-plan approval to a 266-unit, multi-building apartment complex called Cresson Hill, located between Cresson Avenue and Tilton Road and close to the London Court condominiums and Cambridge Townhouses.

Next month, residents should definitely begin moving into Cresson Hill, said Mitchell Gurwicz, one of the partners for the developers, Max Gurwicz Enterprises, which also owns the Tilton Shopping Center.

“Leases haven’t been released yet, but we have several applicants already qualified,” Gurwicz said.

Other communities have this type of housing development, but Northfield does not, Gurwicz said.

The first three buildings of a proposed 14-building complex have been constructed in what is called phase one, Gurwicz said. Phase two will have another three buildings. Phases three and four will have four buildings each.

There will be 225 market-rate units and 40 affordable-housing units in total with the fully completed project, the developer said.

When it comes to Cresson Hill, affordable housing will not mean people on government assistance, people on government programs or people who need to use the Section 8 housing choice voucher program, Gurwicz said.

Affordability will be based on median income. The affordable units will be available at the end of phase two, and they will be administered by another company, Gurwicz said.

“The affordable units will be given out after a rigorous applicant process. People will qualify for a lower rent than market rate, but this is not an assistance program,” Gurwicz said.

In 2014, the City Council passed an ordinance amending its zoning laws to place the development area into the commercial multi-family zone.

At the same time, the City Council also entered into a developer’s agreement with Gurwicz for the property to help the city meet some of its affordable housing obligation.

Mayor Erland Chau, who is also a Planning Board member, voted for the project three years ago. He is happy to see it will be admitting residents.

“No. 1, it will provide us with more affordable housing,” Chau said. “No. 2, it is a ratable. It was vacant land.”

There has been little to no advertising for Cresson Hill because the developer did not have anything to show until recently, Gurwicz said.

“We will be stepping up the marketing very soon, but the response has been incredible just from the drive-by traffic and word of mouth,” Gurwicz said.

There are two 4-feet by 8-feet signs for Cresson Hill, one on Tilton Road and one on Cresson Avenue at the main entrance, Gurwicz said.

The apartments themselves will offer granite countertops, stainless steel kitchen appliances, balconies and an in-unit washer and dryer.

Cresson Hill was built to provide the feel of condo living to a rental community. The residents will be able to take advantage of a clubhouse, 24-hour fitness, a heated pool, a barbecue and picnic area, a package receiving and distribution center and designated pet-friendly areas.

Cresson Hill’s one-bedroom, one-bathroom unit at 841 square feet starts renting for $1,259 monthly. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom units at 1,241-square-feet begin renting for $1,550 monthly, Gurwicz said.

Private garages and private ground-level storage closets and units in various sizes will be available for rent on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Max Gurwicz Enterprises currently operates Woodcrest Apartments in Egg Harbor Township and Ocean Terrace condominiums and Riviera Apartments in Atlantic City.

'Strong' Atlantic City key to N.J. tourism growth, state says

“As Atlantic City goes, that’s how the state is going to go.”

So says the head of the state’s tourism division about Atlantic City’s role in meeting Gov. Phil Murphy’s challenge to increase overall Garden State visitation nearly 26% by 2023.

“When the governor comes in and says, ‘I want 150 million visitors’, he knows it has to come from Atlantic City,” said Jeff Vasser, executive director for the state Division of Travel and Tourism, referring to the goal set by Murphy earlier this year with the release of 2018 numbers that reported statewide visitation increased 7.4% to 110.8 million. “The only way we’re going to get there is a strong Atlantic City.”

Vasser, a Margate-native who lead the now-defunct Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority for 11 years, estimated that the seaside resort’s annual visitors would have to account for nearly one-third of all tourists to meet the goal.

“Atlantic City is the most important tourism asset we have in the state,” he said, “and we do everything we can to support it.”

While non-Shore counties accounted for 52% of statewide visitor spending last year, Atlantic County experienced a 20% increase in visitor spending, spurred in large part by Atlantic City’s eventful year that included the opening of two casinos, the addition of legalized sports gambling and the first academic year of Stockton University’s city campus.

Visitor spending in Atlantic City accounted for 17% of the $44.7 billion spent statewide in 2018.

One key element of increasing visitation to the resort is the meeting and convention business, Vasser said, noting that “there are very few destinations in the state that are focused on the meetings and conventions market,” which is a “big draw for Atlantic City.”

Meet AC, the organization responsible for convention bookings and marketing, increased hotel rooms sold for the fourth consecutive year in 2018 and is on pace to do so again in 2019, said Jim Wood, president and CEO.

The increase in delegates to the city increases revenues for many businesses, which has a ripple effect on job creation and retention, taxes generated and overall economic growth, Wood said.

“We see our role as important, especially from a midweek business standpoint and the impact that it has on the casinos, the hotels, retail outlets, the restaurants,” he said. “You can always feel and see the impact. And it means someone’s here spending money.”

Wood said Meet AC is now booking events at the Atlantic City Convention Center “six, seven” years out, as opposed to two or three years in advance. Wood said those advanced bookings are critical to stability and prove that Meet AC’s marketing and communications strategies are working.

Increasing economic diversity in both the gaming and nongaming sectors is an important part of boosting the city’s profile, Vasser said. A casino gaming operator with a customer database that has not been exposed to Atlantic City before, or often, could increase visitation, he suggested.

But so do the city’s numerous restaurants, shops and other attractions coming to life outside the casinos, he said, pointing to the burgeoning “Orange Loop” businesses along Tennessee and New York avenues and St. James Place as an example.

Vasser said state data shows that feedback from Atlantic City visitors is positive and often exceeds expectations.

“So we’ve been doing a good job of showing them a good time,” Vasser said. “And the more we continue to clean up the city and take an area and make it more exciting, the more that’s going to improve.”

Attracting the international market to Atlantic City — and New Jersey — is also a central point of the Murphy administration’s tourism efforts, Vasser said. In recent years, the city has benefited from an uptick in European visitation, specifically tourists from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany.

International tourism accounted for $2.8 billion of statewide spending in 2018, a figure down from more than $3.1 billion in 2014.

Atlantic City is recognized domestically and internationally, Vasser said. A 2009 study commissioned by the state to gauge tourism’s return on investment found that 100% of respondents had heard of Atlantic City and 76% had visited the resort.

“Atlantic City is an iconic name and it’s going to bring people in,” he said.