ATLANTIC CITY — Rhonda Lowery was stopped at a red light in the resort one day when she heard a frantic beeping.
Looking around, she saw one of the women she worked with in the county’s Teen Parent program, waving and trying to get her attention.
“She was so happy because she had her first car,” Lowery said, chuckling, adding she was there to help the woman get her first apartment and her high school equivalency. “It wasn’t like it happened over a six-month period. This was years later, but she still remembered me and recognized me and she wanted me to see that she was doing OK.”
Lowery, executive director of the Atlantic County Workforce Development Board and director of the Office of Workforce Development, is one of 884 women who work in Atlantic County government. Among county governments in the state, Atlantic ranks as one of the highest employers of women, with 52 percent of its workforce made up of women, and many women in leadership roles.
By comparison, Cumberland County’s workforce is 46 percent women. Ocean County’s is 35 percent women. Cape May County did not respond to a request for the female makeup of its workforce. Warren County was the only county that responded with a higher percentage of women workers than Atlantic County, at 53 percent.
County Executive Dennis Levinson said there are false accusations and misinformation about the women who work in county government after a lawsuit, filed in January by two former and one current employee of the Prosecutor’s Office, named the county, the Prosecutor’s Office and high-ranking officials from both organizations, alleging gender discrimination, retaliation and other illegal behavior.
“Atlantic County has long practiced promoting from within and placing the most qualified individuals in leadership positions,” Levinson said. “Our county workforce includes a majority of women, which is reflected in our management team.”
Michelle Douglass and Phillip Burnham, attorneys for the women who filed the suit — Diane Ruberton, Heather McManus and Donna Fetzer — said county officials “refuse to address the elephant in the room: Women who work in and for the county do not earn the same salary as their male counterparts.”
The attorneys cite a 2015 report from Stockton University that concludes that women in Atlantic County earn 28 percent less than men who work in similar positions performing similar duties.
However, Lowery, along with three other women with a long tenure with the county government, said their gender has never negatively impacted their upward momentum within the county.
Lowery started out as an eligibility worker, helping to determine whether a resident was qualified for public assistance. Then she transitioned to other roles working one on one with county residents, such as the Teen Parent program that ran in the early ‘90s.
“You meet a lot of different types of people,” she said. “You meet some people who only needed a little bit of encouragement and direction. A little bit of a plan and they’re off and running, doing well, a job on their own, and then you meet some that need a lot more work to get them to that point.”
Diana Rutala serves as deputy county administrator. Working in government, she said, was something she was interested in from college, when she was a political science major.
After interning with the county in the early 1980s, Rutala has been full-time there since 1985.
“The good thing about the county, I’ve always found, is that I was never in one place a whole long time. There’s a lot of opportunity if you’re interested, and you can move around,” she said, explaining she’s worked in budgeting and purchasing, then planning and engineering.
“I like figuring out how to get the things done that need to get done in the most cost-effective way,” Rutala said. “I’ve never thought of it as being a woman. I’ve thought of it as being me in my role, and I think I’ve made positive change.”
Bonnie Lindaw, county treasurer and chief financial officer, said she was initially looking for a permanent, full-time job after going to college for business when she applied for an opening in county government and started working her way up.
“Over the years, it’s a position that’s been held by men and women,” Lindaw said of her job. “I feel as though I’ve had great opportunities. Personally, I believe that if you’re qualified for a position and you’re the right person, whether you’re male or female, then that’s the position you should have.”
In her role, Lindaw said she “keeps an eye on expenditures” by working to maintain low debt ratio, rebuild surplus and maintain bond ratings. She’s also worked to implement new financial software throughout the county.
Patricia Diamond, head of the county’s Human Services Department and public health officer, oversees close to 400 people in the four divisions within the department — Public Health, Meadowview Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Northfield, the Office of Support Services and the Division of Intergenerational Services.
Diamond, who has a background in nursing, said government can be very interesting, and she’s always wanted to “provide services in the best fashion we can to the most vulnerable populations.”
Diamond, like Rutala and Lindaw, said the county has never made her feel any different because she is a woman.
“I didn’t really notice a distinction,” she said. “I’ve always thought that the county, if you were good and you were enthusiastic and had a good work ethic, that you would be evaluated to be promoted.”
She said it’s more about being qualified than gender when it comes to working in county government.
“Whether my name was Patrick or Patricia, I don’t think it would matter,” Diamond said. “And if you don’t make a great decision, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female — you’re going to hear about it.”
With warmer weather coming, expect to see construction workers finishing the exteriors of new businesses along the Black Horse Pike and existing businesses relocating within Atlantic County.
The desire for either more space or a better location is driving three businesses to move this spring: Habitat for Humanity Atlantic County ReStore, Starcade and Atlantic City Barstool Brothers Furniture & Design.
The currently healthy economy has allowed all three of these plans to become reality at the same time.
Habitat for Humanity Atlantic County ReStore will move by May from Fire Road in Egg Harbor Township to the Heather Croft Square Shopping Center on Tilton Road, where Produce Junction is, also in the township.
The nine Atlantic County members of the nonprofit business venture’s board of directors decided to make the move based on a recommendation from Executive Director Amanda McGowan.
The location on Fire Road is not the most desirable for the ReStore’s needs, McGowan said.
“The current lease that we are in is up for renewal,” McGowan said. “The two years that we were here gave us time to really get our feet on the ground and understand the ins and outs of operating a ReStore, which was new to the affiliate.”
A ReStore is a home improvement donation center.
“What we do is we resell items that are donated to us at deeply discounted prices, ultimately providing our organization long-term sustainability,” McGowan said.
Starcade is currently located on the ground floor of the Showboat Atlantic City, but the retro arcade will be moving in late March to a location next to Forever 21 inside the Hamilton Mall on the Black Horse Pike in Hamilton Township. It is tentatively scheduled to open April 1.
“We really like being inside the Showboat, but the space we are in currently, they want to turn it into a wrestling ring,” said Bridget Den Boer, the Starcade manager. “We are trying to figure out another space inside the hotel that we can move into. We were looking to the Hamilton Mall as a second location.”
Now, the mall might be the main location as Starcade tries to figure something out with the hotel, Den Boer said.
“I think we may reopen in the Showboat, hopefully before summer,” Den Boer said. “We are trying really hard to stay in the Showboat.”
Starcade will move into a space with 7,200 square feet at the mall, compared with 5,600 square feet at the Showboat, Den Boer said.
“We are going to put in some party rooms, so you can have private parties, and we will have a console area. It will be similar to what we are doing in the Showboat now, except hopefully on a grander scale,” Den Boer said.
Atlantic City Barstool Brothers Furniture & Design will relocate from its current address in the Tilton Shopping Center on Tilton Road in Northfield into the former T.G.I. Friday’s in Harbor Square on the Black Horse Pike in Egg Harbor Township, next to Boscov’s department store.
Brothers Joe Czyzewicz and Russell Schanker co-own the family business. They started out selling dinettes and barstools, but over the course of 28 years, the business has transformed into a full-line furniture store that custom makes all-American and Amish furniture.
“We wanted to be more centrally located,” Czyzewicz said. “Boscov’s customers are the same customer base that we have. Just by them being there, our customers will be around our store more often and ones that maybe haven’t been in.”
HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Three months after the last merchandise crept off the shelves at the former Sears, the Hamilton Mall has confirmed another big-name department store will close.
J.C. Penney will close its Hamilton location July 5, Crystal Rodriguez, the mall’s marketing manager, said Thursday.
“This decision is the result of an ongoing review of our store portfolio, which includes assessing locations that may not meet our required financial targets or represent an opportunity to capitalize on a beneficial real estate asset,” the company said in a statement. “It’s never easy taking actions that directly impact our valued associates and customers, however we feel this is a necessary business decision.”
J.C. Penney is closing more stores following a weak holiday sales season for the retailer.
MAYS LANDING — Indoor malls would not have to worry about their future if all shoppers were like Paige Etsell.
The department store said Thursday it would turn the lights out at 18 total locations, including three that were announced last month. It will also close nine home and furniture stores.
“It’s really sad to see all the stuff closing,” said shopper Brianna Burke, 33, adding she’d been coming to the mall since she was 10. “The mall is gonna be empty.”
“I think it’s gonna be a blow to the economy in terms of a lack of variety of shopping, convenience and for employment,” said Paula Davis, 64, who also was at the mall Thursday afternoon.
Davis said she prefers to be “physically in a store,” that while she does shop online, she wants to “see the quality of (clothing) and touch it.”
Net income at J.C. Penney tumbled nearly 70 percent, and a key measure for health dropped 4 percent in the fourth quarter, the most crucial period of the year for retailers who bank on strong holiday sales.
The company did top expectations for fourth-quarter results, and under new CEO Jill Soltau, the department store rid itself of unprofitable inventory and said it will have positive free cash flow this year.
Shares jumped more than 22 percent Thursday, its second-biggest one-day gain.
Soltau, who came on board in October, faces numerous challenges in avoiding the fate of Sears and other retailers that have filed for bankruptcy protection, or vanished.
Under Soltau, J.C. Penney jettisoned major appliances, which accounted for 2.7 percent of the company’s sales last year, but dragged on the company’s operating profit.
It’s focusing instead on women’s clothing and goods for the home such as towels or bedsheets, which carry higher profit margins. Furniture is still available, but only online.
That reverses the course followed by predecessor Marvin Ellison, who three years ago began selling major appliances again in an attempt to capitalize on problems at Sears.
In a conference call Thursday, Soltau said she has spent time with customers, suppliers and workers and she said she’s convinced that the company can establish a path of “sustainable profit growth.”
Changes will be swift, methodical and based on what customers want and expect from J.C. Penney, Soltau said. “This is not business-as-usual,” she said during a conference call Thursday. “Our current reality is clear.”
Department stores like J.C. Penney are trying to reinvent themselves in an era when Americans are buying more online or turning to discounters like T.J. Maxx for clothing.
Bringing back shoppers has proved exceedingly difficult, even for iconic brands.
Momentum appears to be slowing at Macy’s, soon to be the Hamilton Mall’s last remaining major department store. Fourth-quarter results showed weaker profit and total sales, as well as meager growth in sales at established stores, a key measure for a retailer’s health.
The path back to prosperity appears especially tenuous for J.C. Penney. It is trying to claw its way back after a disastrous reinvention plan in 2012 by its former CEO Ron Johnson, who dramatically cut back on promotions and brought in new brands to attract young shoppers.
Sales at J.C. Penney went into a freefall, it suffered massive losses and once-loyal customers moved on.
That situation has stabilized, but establishing an identity in a retail landscape that has undergone seismic changes continues to elude the retailer.
”The central problem for (J.C. Penney) is that it no longer gives shoppers reasons to visit stores and to make purchases,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. “In other words, it has lost sight of why it exists. This is evident across both stores and online, where a hodgepodge of products are thrown together in a seemingly random fashion.”
The company reduced inventory by 13 percent last year, and that will continue throughout 2019. Soltau said more uncluttered stores will allow people to find what they want more easily.
The Associated Press and intern Shannon Joyce contributed to this report.
NORTH WILDWOOD — Charges against Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. for his role in a fight outside an Atlantic City casino nightclub in November were dismissed Thursday.
Councilman Jeffree Fauntleroy II pleaded guilty to an Atlantic City ordinance against impeding traffic in a public space and will pay a $500 fine.
The pair of elected officials, both Democrats, were charged with simple assault and harassment for their involvement in the fight at Golden Nugget Atlantic City on Nov. 11. Gilliam and Fauntleroy were recorded on security camera footage outside Haven Nightclub at 2:22 a.m. in a skirmish with three employees.
“The justice system basically proved itself to be what we stated from the very beginning,” Gilliam said. “It’s all about basically moving Atlantic City forward.”
Gilliam and Fauntleroy pleaded not guilty in December after the complaints were transferred to Cape May County to avoid a conflict of interest in Atlantic County. All criminal charges against both elected officials were dismissed Thursday, which the complainants agreed to.
“Today is a great day for me, great day for Atlantic City,” said Fauntleroy. “We get to move forward.”
Two of the Haven nightclub employees who signed complaints against the Atlantic City politicians, Gregory Aulicino and Joseph Camarota, were in court Thursday morning. The third complainant, Julie Rodriguez, did not appear in court but spoke with Municipal Prosecutor Ron Gelzunas by phone in December.
On the video footage, Fauntleroy can be seen grabbing Aulicino from behind and tossing him to the ground during the melee.
“I’m glad to see that someone is taking responsibility for their actions, (but) it’s a shame to see public officials behave so poorly,” Aulicino said. “My job is to promote the great nightlife we have in Atlantic City. My job becomes much more difficult when people like Fauntleroy leave a black eye on my city’s reputation.”
Gilliam and another unidentified individual can be seen on the security footage exchanging punches with Camarota. After the melee, Gilliam drove away in his city-issued Chevrolet SUV.
Camarota declined to comment after the hearing.
Vincent Campo, Gilliam’s attorney, said the “mayor was accosted and protected himself.”
“We’re happy the mayor was exonerated, as we knew he would be, of any illegal or untoward conduct,” said Campo. “The mayor simply wants to get back to serving the people of Atlantic City.”
Two days after the fight, Gilliam arrived at City Hall with a pair of sunglasses concealing a bruised left eye before a meeting with Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and the Atlantic City Executive Council. Oliver is also commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, which has oversight of Atlantic City. In November, the lieutenant governor described Gilliam’s involvement in the fight as “troubling” but said it would not detract from the state’s goals in Atlantic City.
ATLANTIC CITY — Embattled Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. begins 2019 facing a litany of issues, none of which the city’s chief executive has much control over.
The DCA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Gilliam has been cleared of criminal wrongdoing twice since taking office in January 2018. A criminal complaint was filed in March 2018 by members of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee who claimed Gilliam stole a $10,000 check, but a Superior Court judge found no probable cause and dismissed the charges.
On Dec. 3, the FBI and IRS Criminal Investigation Division executed a search warrant at Gilliam’s home on North Ohio Avenue. After nearly four hours, investigators left the mayor’s house with cardboard boxes and computer equipment. Authorities have not stated why Gilliam’s home was subject to a search, and the mayor has not been charged with any crime stemming from the search.