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Atlantic City's Gardner's Basin remains 'a diamond in the rough' decades later

ATLANTIC CITY — Gardner’s Basin, the back bay area along New Hampshire Avenue, has been called Atlantic City’s “hidden gem” or its “diamond in the rough.” But while the historic waterfront is considered precious, many feel that it hasn’t been mined to its full potential.

Tenants hope that will change now that the city has terminated agreements with a private developer and taken over control of Gardner’s Basin earlier this month.

Owner of Back Bay Alehouse Jane Williams said that she was excited to learn that the city will now control the basin where her popular summer restaurant has sat for more than a decade.

Scarborough Properties, the Somers Point developer who had managed the area since December 2017, included an additional restaurant in its plan, but, due to a decades-old agreement with the state’s Green Acres funding program, options to add more restaurants are limited. This proposal created uncertainty if Williams would continue to operate.

Now, she said she feels like her restaurant, which employs more than 100 employees in the summer, is on more solid ground.

“With the city as our landlord, we are hopeful,” she said.

City Councilman Aaron Randolph, who represents the First Ward where Gardner’s Basin is located, said he wants to see the area continue to grow.

“People do not realize how many people come to Gardner’s basin. They enjoy the atmospheres and what we need to do now that we got it back is enhance the atmosphere,” Randolph said. “We need to build it up and make it even more viable to our community.”

Randolph sees it as a positive change now that the city has control over the area.

“As of now, I think it’s in the best interest of all parties, since it belongs to the city of Atlantic City, that it stays with the city of Atlantic City because we know it better than anyone else,” Randolph said.

But while there are opportunities for growth, the city is taking on the added financial and environmental responsibility it takes to run the basin.

Fishing for revenue streams

While he declined to get into the details of the financials, Randolph said the basin is “self-sustaining,” when run correctly.

“We may have to turn it into a utility. We don’t know, but it will be always with the city,” he said.

Chris Seher, president of the Atlantic City Historic Waterfront Foundation, the nonprofit that managed the basin for more than 40 years before Scarborough properties stepped in, disagreed.

He said that Gardner’s Basin, as it stands now, is not a revenue generator.

Seher said that in the seven-month warm weather season from spring to fall the basin generates a net revenue of approximately $200,000 from the aquarium, seasonal dock rentals and monthly rent from commercial businesses. A small portion of this revenue was also previously generated by crafters, who vacated at the end of the summer to comply with the state’s Green Acre program.

From November to February, the basin can experience a roughly $100,000 deficit due to decreased attendance in the off season, he said.

According to a financial report from the Waterfront Foundation from August 2017, the basin had a net income of less than $150,000 over the prior two years.

It is also assumed that the city will now have to take back the $250,000 it costs to pay the area’s utility bills.

The city previously supplied this utility payment in the past, Seher said, but after striking a deal with Scarborough Property last year, the $250,000 the developer agreed to be take over the fees.

City Council has already allocated $100,000 in emergency funding to continue to run the aquarium.

It also approved a six-month contract with Shore Aquarium Services Inc. for $6,500 per month to manage the feeding of animals in the aquarium. The foundation previously paid for this service as part of its operating expenses, Seher said.

While he does not believe that the basin can generate revenue as it stands, Seher said that it does have the potential to foster new revenue streams.

He suggests that the city go out to bid to find a new developer to invest private funds into the area or set up a new charity to manage the area.

The charity won’t be the Atlantic City Historic Waterfront, Seher said.

The group will finalize the necessary paper work to dissolve the organization by the end of December. Their remaining funds will be converted into a maritime scholarship endowment fund for Stockton University.

Williams and Gilchrist restaurant owner Denise Stamat said that improvements are possible for the area moving forward.

“I think with the right amount of insight from business owners, citizens and input form everyone involved we have a really good future,” Williams said.

She said she still wants to operate at her location in the city for at least 20 more years.

Is the future Greener?

The city received funding from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund when the Gardner’s Basin Park was established in the 1970s. That funding came with requirements for businesses there to support conservation, recreation and open space.

In its program rules, the DEP lists some of these purposes including beaches, biological studies, boating, camping, fishing greenways, hunting, parks and wildlife preserves.

Denise Stamat said that she has concerns about the permanence of the restrictions.

“Things evolve and you have do the right the for the city,” she said.

Beyond These Halls: PHS senior Akeem Walker sets an example

PLEASANTVILLE — Over the summer, Akeem Walker and his friends spotted a preschool-age boy walking alone in the middle of the night. They called 911 and stayed with the young boy until police arrived, helping the officers locate the boy’s mom.

Akeem and the three other young men received recognition from the police for their heroism.

“That’s just one example of what Akeem does and the type of person Akeem is,” said his football coach and guidance counselor at Pleasantville High School, Chris Sacco.

Standing just over 6-feet-tall, 17-year-old Akeem speaks quietly and has a broad, toothy smile. He wears his hair in short twists that cover his forehead, and sports two sparkling earrings. Akeem is positive and said he likes to be happy and have fun.

Last month, just a few days before the Greyhounds’ final game of the season, Akeem was excited. The Thanksgiving Day football game — which they won against rival Ocean City — followed a disappointing loss to Haddonfield during the South Jersey Group II semi-final game earlier that month.

“It didn’t go as expected, but we made a huge step from last year so that’s good,” Akeem said. “A couple of mistakes, little mistakes caused us to not be champions. But hopefully the upcoming class can fix those mistakes for next year.”

Akeem began playing football in 2016 as a sophomore, a year after the team’s winless season. As a wide receiver, Akeem has been a big contributor to the team, Sacco said. He stays active all year, running track in the winter and spring.

“I’m an athlete, all around,” the senior said.

Off the field, Akeem works just as hard, earning a 4.1 GPA, scoring over 1200 on his SAT, and ranking 12th in his class. But he is also very modest, not once bragging about his academic or athletic skills — they were recounted by his coach — or even mentioning the event over the summer, which appeared in the news.

Outside of sports, Akeem said he doesn’t have much time for anything else — he said he even celebrated his 17th birthday at a football game.

“I have too much sports going on, so I don’t have too much time,” he said.

Akeem is looking forward to college and to continuing to play football, which he said is his passion.

“It’s team-oriented, and I get to play with my friends,” he said, describing why he likes the game.

He said he has been looking at colleges, but hasn’t made a choice yet. Earlier this year, Akeem said he wanted to major in business and also had aspirations of becoming a real estate broker. He doesn’t care how far away he goes to college, because eventually he wants to travel the world, he said.

As of November, he had been accepted to four colleges.

“It takes a lot of weight off my shoulders knowing I have options now,” Akeem said, noting that scholarship money helps his parents out.

One of four children, Akeem was born in Jamaica and moved with his parents and siblings to Atlantic City as a baby. When he was 5, they moved to Pleasantville, where he has been since. Akeem said he has no complaints and was pretty happy about how the school year was going so far. He said there was a “a different vibe” in the hallways this year.

“I don’t know if I’m the only one that’s noticing this, but it feels more active,” he said, describing a community project his senior class did sending cards to soldiers overseas for Thanksgiving.

Akeem couldn’t attribute it to any one person in the district.

“I think we’re the best class, I think that’s why,” he said, grinning.

Tilton theater to receive upgrade from familiar developer

While construction continues on the Ventnor Square Theatre, the same developers continue to expand their growing network of movie theaters.

Brett DeNafo, along with his business partners Clint Bunting and Scot Kauffman, now plan to renovate the Tilton 9 Theater and IMAX in Northfield.

The developers finalized an agreement this week with Max Gurwicz enterprises, the company that owns the building and operates the shopping center.

“The movie-going experience here in South Jersey is about to change, and we are very excited to be a part of this venture,” Executive Mitchell Gurwicz wrote in a statement.

DeNafo said the building became available after Frank Theatres vacated the property. Frank Theatres filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy over the summer.

This isn’t the first time that DeNafo has followed the path left behind by Frank Theatres. He and his partners purchased the Ventnor theater from Bruce Frank and settled on the property in August.

Frank Theatres also owns Towne Stadium 16 in Egg Harbor Township, which is currently still open. The company could not be reached for comment.

DeNafo, who was also the driving force behind the revitalization of a theater in Stone Harbor, plans to keep the IMAX and upgrade the building’s interior.

All seven regular theaters in the Tilton will be outfitted with reclining chairs.

DeNafo said the building is already in good condition and won’t need the same level of restoration as the Ventnor theater.

“There were so many moving parts in Ventnor when the Tilton is already a theater,” DeNafo said.

DeNafo plans to have the theater, to be known as the Tilton Square Theater and IMAX, open by the beginning of March.

“We want to get that open because we don’t want to lose our train of thought on Ventnor. We want to try to get this done in the next month or so and then get back to Ventnor again. Because by then Ventnor will be full speed ahead,” he said.

After a lengthier planning process that included applying for a liquor license, work on their Ventnor project continues, DeNafo said.

City officials said having a theater in Ventnor will rejuvenate the neighborhood and serve the community.

Millie Davaila, who lives a block away from the theater on Hillside Avenue, said she saw movies at the old theater in the 1980s.

“It has the same location, the same format that it had, so I’m very excited,” she said.

Davaila, who has a 19-year-old daughter, said she’s eager to have these kinds of memories continue for the next generation.

“The teenagers need that just as much as us adults,” she said.

A site plan approved by Ventnor officials Dec. 12 shows developers plan to revamp all three levels of the building while also staying true to its historic Art Deco origins.

The Tilton theater will feature an upgraded snack bar while the Ventnor theater will house a restaurant along with its three theaters.

The main theater in Ventnor will hold almost 300 people and two smaller theaters will hold about 80 each.

Neighbors support the theater, but hope the city will work to find a solution such as residential parking spaces or permits.

If everything continues according to plan, DeNafo said, Ventnor Square Theatre will open after the Tilton at the end of May.

Press archives  

Franks Theatre in Northfield, Tilton 9, was closed with a sign on the door that read, ‘Due to technical difficulties we are closed today, 9/20/2018. Thank you for your understanding.’

Merging of casino regulatory agencies not in the cards

A proposed bill would create a politically appointed advisory board to recommend consolidation of the state agencies regulating the casino gaming industry.

Except there does not seem to be much support, or an urgent need, for such a measure.

The legislation would create a nine-member New Jersey Casino Oversight Consolidation Commission to study and recommend ways to consolidate the Casino Control Commission, the Division of Gaming Enforcement, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and the Casino Revenue Fund Advisory Board.

Only the proposed revenue fund advisory board would be located outside of Atlantic City.

The CCC declined to comment on any pending legislation, while the DGE and the CRDA did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill has been referred to the state Assembly Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee each time it has been introduced (2015, 2016 and 2018) but has never moved. The Office of Legislative Services has never conducted a cost-benefit analysis or fiscal review of the legislation. And the bill’s primary — and only — sponsor, former Assemblyman Tim Eustace, D-Bergen and Passaic, left office in April.

Eustace said the primary reason the bill was introduced was to find ways to reduce spending and increase efficiency for agencies that may have redundant responsibilities, pointing to similar legislation introduced that would have studied the consolidation of highway and port authorities in the state.

Eustace said the proposal was also an attempt to address failings in the industry that he believed contributed to the closing of five properties in two years’ time.

“It didn’t seem like anybody was getting anywhere with any long-term fixes with the casino issues,” Eustace said. “(It seemed) that we were just throwing money down the same rabbit hole.”

Dan Heneghan is an industry consultant who previously covered the casino industry for The Press of Atlantic City, from its inception in 1978, before serving as the public information officer for the Casino Control Commission from 1996 until his retirement earlier this year.

Heneghan said consolidation would not provide any savings to taxpayers because the budget funding is generated from gaming revenue, not tax dollars.

Any reduction in spending would roll over to the next fiscal year rather than return to the state’s General Fund.

Heneghan also said there has “already been a dramatic streamlining” of the regulatory structure of casino gaming in recent years.

“The changes made back in 2011 made extraordinary changes in the way that New Jersey regulates the gaming industry,” he said.

Some of that legislation altered the functions, duties and scope of responsibilities granted to the state regulatory agencies. One bill gave CRDA land use and zoning authority over the defined Tourism District in Atlantic City while also merging the authority with the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority and the Special Improvement District. A second bill moved a handful of regulatory functions performed by the Casino Control Commission to the Division of Gaming Enforcement. Another bill established alternative methods of issuing casino licenses.

Steve Norton, who is also an industry consultant and spent more than three decades as a casino executive in both Atlantic City and Las Vegas, said the functions and responsibilities of casino regulatory agencies, specifically the commission and the division, should remain separate.

“The CCC and the DGE do different things,” he said. “They are very different (operations). Nevada has never done that. ... They both serve a purpose. I don’t see an easy way to combine the two.”

Eustace, who was a supporter of expanding New Jersey casino gaming outside of Atlantic City, said he believes the main reason the proposal never received any traction was because of where in the state the idea originated.

“I’m sure it’s because I’m from the north and any ideas we have about casinos got stepped on,” he said.