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.