ATLANTIC CITY — It was not too long ago that Gardner’s Basin was flourishing, said Gregory Wood, owner of Fish Heads, a seafood and sandwich shop that overlooks the water.
“Gardner’s Basin was thriving two seasons ago,” said the 57-year-old Atlantic City native who has been operating his food stand in the historic district since 1997.
Within the past year, several businesses have closed, relocated or have struggled to survive in Gardner’s Basin. An unsuccessful partnership with Somers Point-based developer Scarborough Properties began in 2017 and was terminated in late 2018. Gardner’s Basin was returned to the city’s control this year.
On Tuesday, City Council adopted an ordinance to formalize the annual fee schedule for amenities and attractions in the basin. During the special meeting, city officials suggested a new partnership to enhance the area’s offerings could be in the works, specifically at the Atlantic City Aquarium.
“I think that now that it’s back in the city’s hands that we’ll be able to form a better partnership and craft a vision for what we all want, and need, Gardner’s Basin to be,” said Council President Marty Small Sr. “There’s a lot of potential now, but we have to continue the momentum of Gardner’s Basin from the summer over to the fall and winter months as well. And the way you do that is build quality attractions that people want to come patronize.”
With the aquarium as an anchor attraction, and several resilient vendors, including Back Bay Ale House, Atlantic City Cruises, Gilchrist Restaurant and Highroller Fishing, Wood believes Gardner’s Basin can, once again, be a jewel. But city officials need to communicate with the state, which has fiscal oversight of Atlantic City following the 2016 takeover, to make it happen, he said.
Gardner’s Basin, once a haven for rum runners and commercial fishing fleets, became a public attraction in the 1970s after the city received grant money from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. That funding was tied to environmental restrictions, which officials and developers say have stifled growth in the area.
Council Vice President Aaron “Sporty” Randolph, who represents the city’s 1st Ward in which Gardner’s Basin is located, said Atlantic City is looking at what has been done at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as a model, albeit on a smaller scale.
“We just got it back in our hands, so, to get it up and running and get people back in there, that’s what we want for right now,” Randolph said.
Randolph went on to say that Gardner’s Basin is a “jewel” that needs to be updated. He was confident a continued collaboration between council, the Mayor’s Office and the state Department of Community Affairs — which has direct oversight of the city — would produce results for the area.
DCA Deputy Commissioner Rob Long said the potential of Gardner’s Basin is something “everybody recognizes,” and officials would continue working together to improve it.
Brondon Smith, 36, of Somers Point, was preparing to cast his line into the water at the William “Bill” Demones Jr. Atlantic City Seawall Fishing Complex in Gardner’s Basin on Tuesday morning when he offered some suggestions. Smith, who has been fishing at Gardner’s Basin for nearly a decade, said the area “could be cleaned up a bit,” but noted it is currently “better than it was,” even a year ago.
Smith also said he would like to see an extended fishing pier at Gardner’s Basin to make it more welcoming for anglers.
“It’s hard to fish sometimes because of all the boats,” he said. “I’ve lost fish a couple of times because of boats.”
Capitalizing on Gardner’s Basin natural assets, such as aquatic recreation, should go hand in hand with offering more reasons for people to visit, such as live entertainment and festivals, Wood said.
“At a time when the city is looking to generate revenue, this is a place that can do that,” Wood said. “We have to stop being scared of the state and tell them what we want.”