ATLANTIC CITY — Mike Epps takes his new role personally.
The recently appointed executive director of the Atlantic City Initiative Project Office is a homegrown product who has been tasked with implementing the recommendations contained in the state’s transition report.
For the 52-year-old attorney, shepherding Atlantic City out from under state oversight and returning local control to its residents is a chance to let others view the Queen of Resorts the way the Atlantic City High School gradaute sees her.
“This is an opportunity to be in a spot that has some impact on, hopefully, our growth and re-emergence as a premier jurisdiction to both work and live,” Epps said Thursday from his seventh floor office in City Hall. “I think that’s one of the most important pieces of this initiative ... (Atlantic City) is a great place to live. And I want other folks to appreciate what a great place it is to live and raise a family and, ultimately, we need to get back to that. I think we can.”
The Atlantic City Project Office operates under the purview of the state Department of Community Affairs and is funded by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The CRDA approved $1.35 million in November for the office’s staffing needs, but, so far, Epps is the only employee.
As executive director, Epps reports directly to Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who doubles as commissioner of the DCA.
Besides the transition report itself, the Project Office takes its lead from the collective ideas generated from the Atlantic City Executive Council and the Atlantic City Coordinating Council, two entities comprised of public and private stakeholders, such as casino executives, Stockton University and AtlantiCare along with city, county and state officials.
Lisa Ryan, a spokesperson for the DCA, said Epps was selected to lead the Project Office because of his Atlantic City roots.
“He knows and understands the city’s history, strengths and challenges, and he’s developed relationships over the years with a network of community leaders, stakeholders and neighborhood organizations that will serve him well in his current role,” said Ryan.
“He is a respected force who knows how to get things done and can jump right into the work. We are tremendously fortunate to have Mike leading the Atlantic City Initiatives Office. His hire shows our commitment to implementing the recommendations in the Atlantic City Transition Report and to advancing the initiatives of the Atlantic City Executive Council.”
Epps, whose connections to the city and its primary economic driver include a term as a Casino Control Commissioner and general counsel to the city’s housing authority, said his relationships with many of the key stakeholders involved means his primary function is keeping those people vested and engaged in the long-term progress of Atlantic City.
“I’m not some guy that has the magic pill or the the secret answer,” said Epps, who now lives in Galloway Township. “I’m just a person that’s kind of trying to keep everybody at the table and keep them invested in what they’ve already indicated. A lot of times we have great ideas that fall apart because there’s no one to hold it on. Together, hopefully, I’m able to keep those things moving in a positive direction and keep everybody’s energy focused on the finish line, so that we can get some things accomplished for our town.”
Acutely aware that some may view the Project Office as more state involvement where it is not needed, Epps said the initiative is not just another government agency created to address a nonexistent problem.
“The beauty of this is, I think, is that it’s not bureaucracy,” he said. “My office is the facilitator of it. But, primarily this is driven by corporate citizens who are engaged enough in Atlantic City and invested enough in Atlantic City to try and make things happen.”
The transition report was co-authored by Jim Johnson, a former U.S. Treasury undersecretary and 2017 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who was tapped by Gov. Phil Murphy to create a blueprint for getting Atlantic City back on its own two feet after the 2016 takeover. Johnson said he considered the transition team to be “very fortunate” that Epps was selected to helm the Project Office and implement the strategies contained in the report.
“Our desire was to put together a team that had Atlantic City roots, an appetite for change, integrity and smarts,” said Johnson. “And Mike is our key player.”
Johnson said the hope is to round out the Project Office with others who have city development experience, including some from outside Atlantic City.
Epps said he recognizes the challenges the new opportunity presents, particularly in pushing back against the perception that Atlantic City is doomed to fail.
“Absolutely, (this is) 100 percent is personal to me,” he said. “The negative stigmas and the negative press that Atlantic City often receives, I internalize ... Some of it may be self-inflicted and some of it may be deserved. But whether it is or not, I still internalize it. It is my hometown. And there are a lot of folks who know me as from Atlantic City and so that reflects on me to a certain degree, maybe more than it should.”
For his part, Epps said he is determined to be a part of the Queen’s comeback story.
”She always reinvents herself and I think that she is poised to reinvent herself again,” he said. “I think that she can reestablish herself as a place that people want to live as well as play. I think that we’ve lost some of that. And so, I think that’s the next (chapter) of Atlantic City.”