ATLANTIC CITY — Atlantic City has fewer residents than any time in recent memory. The resort’s casino industry has never suffered worse losses. And its government is drowning in debt.
Before the city can be reborn, those in power needed to determine what’s killing it.
Mayor Lorenzo Langford identified 12 issues this week that are contributing to the city’s demise. He says his job, with the help of a new coalition of resort decision-makers, is to target the goals that will do the most to cure the city’s financial problems.
“There are a number of things,” Langford told The Press of Atlantic City this week. “If you attempt to put your arms around everything, you’ll probably get nothing done.”
But the list of problems and priorities is recognizable to those familiar with the city. In some areas, such as synchronizing traffic lights and demolishing the resort’s biggest eyesores, the city has a history of discussion and debate, but little action. In others, such as cleanliness and marketing, the city could already have plans for improvements.
Langford, for now, is keeping quiet.
“He has specific plans to address,” Langford spokesman Kevin Hall said of Langford’s list of priorities. “He doesn’t want to discuss any of the issues yet.”
The group Langford assembled met on Tuesday and will meet again Dec. 8 to share concise to-do lists. Most believe the meetings will become a bi-weekly event.
As the public officials, casino executives and neighborhood representatives prepare to meet again, The Press of Atlantic City put together a status report on the 12 priorities the mayor outlined this week.
In an age of advanced technology, the Langford administration wants to go back to the broom.
Last month, Langford sent a memo to council members proposing the creation of a Street Sweepers Division. The new section, operating with a budget of about $215,000, would staff 10 employees armed only with a push broom, a shovel and a trash can with wheels. The employees would be assigned to each resort neighborhood, hand-picked by the council members who represent those sections, to clean streets, rake leaves and clear storm drains.
If the mayor gets his way, the program would start next March and run through November annually.
Meanwhile, the city hopes to get cleaning assistance from others that have contributed to the resort’s mess. Pinnacle Entertainment, which imploded the old Sands Casino Hotel to make way for a megaresort that never came, reportedly agreed to pay for new sidewalks and other clean-up efforts around the Pacific Avenue site, according to Councilman Dennis Mason.
However, Councilman Steven Moore, head of the city’s Public Works Committee, said he knew nothing of the plan and has failed in his attempts to meet with the company. A Pinnacle spokeswoman did not know the status of the potential cleaning efforts.
The timing of city traffic lights is a bigger problem than your bad luck.
Resetting the lights to ease congestion is a long overdue initiative. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority undertook the project last year, but coupled it with their controversial effort to transform Atlantic and Pacific avenues into one-way streets.
The agency committed $2.5 million to designing the project, which included realigning the avenues’ traffic lights. CRDA’s Executive Director Thomas Carver said Friday that no preliminary work has been done for the rest of the city and gave no target date for that work to begin.
“We’re waiting to see where we stand on the next moves on the direction of the project,” said Carver, adding that coordination with other government entities, such as the South Jersey Transportation Authority, is necessary.
But Langford’s consistent opposition to altering the direction of Atlantic and Pacific avenues could erase the preliminary work already done for synchronization.
The unemployment rate is a top priority, not only in Atlantic City. And yet, as the state’s jobless rate dipped down to 9.7 percent last month, Atlantic County’s inched up to 13.9 percent in October.
Atlantic City’s employment outlook is equally dismal. Resort casinos here have experienced a collective revenue drop of about 13.5 percent this year, and if there are any new hires, experts say they won’t come until next spring. The new owners of Resorts Atlantic City and the three Trump casino hotels are expected to take over with an eye toward cost-cutting. The grand opening of Revel Entertainment Group’s new $2 billion casino has been pushed back to 2011.
The next big city construction project, the garage at The Walk, is also not expected to begin until the spring.
And although Atlantic City was one of few municipal governments that continued to hire after the economy folded, City Council enacted a hiring freeze making it harder for the administration to bring on new employees.
During Langford’s first term in office, the mayor called on residents to help him assemble a list of Atlantic City’s Top 10 eyesores. Residents and civic groups responded with 80 notable blots on the city’s landscape.
That was almost six years ago. Today, many of the same sites remain — including the city-owned Boardwalk pavilion at Atlantic and Maine avenues. Business Administrator Michael Scott said the mayor is dedicated to amping up demolition efforts “for anything that’s considered blighted.”
Langford also hired a Demolition Program coordinator for the first time in three years.
Scott said discussions with the mayor about increased demolition efforts have not included acquiring properties through eminent domain. CRDA officials recently said they would immediately implement a demolition program, but the city must identify the abandoned buildings that foster crime.
Langford may have taken a long step in improving government relations with his high-profile meeting this week, but it will take more than one get-together to fully open communications.
City Council President William Marsh recently told The Press that residents can expect city officials to put more pressure on the county to provide services in the city, such as beautification and park preservation.
Working toward that goal might have been hindered, however, when Langford left Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson off the summit’s invitation list. The pair of government leaders tangled at the end of the summer over Langford’s decision to halt the use of police patrol dogs.
“My invitation must have gotten lost in the mail,” said Levinson, who insisted the county wants to cooperate any way it can.
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, and Assemblyman John Amodeo, R-Atlantic, said they never had difficulties communicating with the Langford administration.
“Now is the time, more than ever, that the state has to step up with the city,” Amodeo said.
Jeffrey Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, said that his agency is working on an advertising plan with the casinos and the hotels that would better market the resort.
Typically, any marketing has been done on an ad-hoc basis, he said, with the various groups involved cooperating for a specific event. The details of this new plan aren’t available until the first quarter of 2010, but the approach would be to highlight each partner either through Internet, print or cable TV campaigns.
The Langford administration has also created a new program to sell advertising space on busy sidewalk sections in an effort to create revenue and bolster the foundering city budget.
Langford’s newest term has only lasted one year so far, but for Police Chief John J. Mooney III it has been much longer.
Many of the mayor’s big initiatives have focused on the city’s Police Department, most notably indefinitely removing its patrol dogs from the streets and pushing to enlist a public safety director with authority over the chief.
Langford’s public safety moves underlines a bitter rivalry between him and Mooney, who told The Press the two have not met in months. The chief also took exception to not being invited to Langford’s summit, although no other department heads were present.
“No one benefits from this lack of communication,” Mooney said.
Others think discussions about crime should include getting the truth out about Atlantic City’s neighborhoods. The Press of Atlantic City recently reported that crime increased in the first 10 years of legalized casino gaming, but has fallen in the 20 years since, to pre-casino numbers.
Anyone with a stake in Atlantic City’s business future hopes resort residents are kind and accommodating to city visitors.
But Vasser said “customer courtesy” means more than just being nice. Helping visitors save money is key, too.
Vasser said keeping costs low for meeting planners who may use the Atlantic City Convention Center or promoters who want to bring events to Boardwalk Hall would go a long way.
In terms of specifics that can be done, Vasser declined to discuss immediate plans.
“I’d rather not go there right now,” he said. “But it’s a big effort.”
Officials with the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority say there was a decline in the number of shows at Boardwalk Hall this year from 2008. Vasser attributes that to more acts cutting down on touring because of the economy. He expects a similar outlook for 2010.
He also suggested the need for more incentives to bring tours and shows to Atlantic City.
“There’s always more to do,” he said. “I’d rather be vague at this point. But as times are tough, other destinations are doing more.”
The city’s hope of establishing non-casino attractions has gone in the wrong direction this year.
The resort’s own independent-league baseball team, the Atlantic City Surf, folded in late March after 11 years. If and when the city manages to develop Bader Field, the 143-acre city-owned site currently zoned for casino gaming, it would wipe out Flyers Skate Zone. Other talks to bring big attractions separate from the casinos have been short-lived.
Councilman Bruce Ward believes Bader Field offers an opportunity to take the first step away from gambling — a big step. Ward recently said he envisions what could be the largest indoor water park on the continent at the site.
“Imagine ‘Water World’ or ‘Aqua World’ open to guests all year long to experience wave pools, flume rides and excitement for all ages,” Ward wrote in a memo to Langford in August. Ward said he has not heard back from the mayor yet.
On a lower scale, the city has increased efforts to revitalize their local athletic fields for residents. Planning Director Bill Crane said three city fields — Pete Politto Field, Dolphin Field and Dwayne Harris field — are slated to be upgraded with new synthetic turf.
City property taxes ranked low on the list Langford shared at Tuesday’s meeting, but only because it was arranged in alphabetical order.
Unprepared residents have struggled with the sharp spike in taxes in the aftermath of an overall city property revaluation that came three decades late. The city responded by arranging a phase-in of the increases over the course of five years for those who qualified. Some have lauded the program as a helpful aide, others have called it a “slow death.”
By 2012, all city taxpayers will be paying their full share. In the meantime, the city’s budget continues to grow. After avoiding a major fiscal crisis this year by deferring city pension payments, the Langford administration is staring down a 2010 budget deficit of at least $25 million.
The state severely restricted Atlantic City when it approved a bill requiring any sale or lease of Bader Field to pass through the state’s Local Finance Board.
Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor, crafted the legislation and was a strong advocate for it. Langford later called the bill “an insult” and Whelan a “Benedict Arnold.”
Last week, Langford said he feels the same way about the legislation, but expects the state to be much more open to easing those restrictions if the city develops a plan that could lead to development at Bader Field.
“I don’t think the state is going to say, ‘We’re not going to do that because it wasn’t our idea,” he said this week.
Staff writers Erik Ortiz and Derek Harper contributed to this report.
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