The Atlantic City Airshow Thunder Over the Boardwalk packs the beach Aug. 17. In addition to tourism events such as the airshow, the city has spent years courting development with PILOT — payment in lieu of taxes — programs.

ATLANTIC CITY — Tourist visits to the city last year were the lowest since the early 1980s, according to a recent report from the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University, but officials believe 2018 could be a rebound year.

Tourist visits to the resort in 2017 were 24.1 million, a 1.2 percent decrease from the previous year’s 24.4 million. Last year’s total represents the lowest number of visits since 1982, when there were 22.9 million visits.

However, 2018 is expected to reverse the city’s fortunes, with the opening of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Resort Casino, and the completion of a city campus for Stockton University and the corporate headquarters of South Jersey Gas.

“We are seeing and hearing from businesses that everybody is feeling pretty good about the outlook for the coming season,” said Greater Atlantic City Chamber President Joseph Kelly. “I think the look is optimistic toward 2018.”

Hard Rock is renovating the former Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, and AC Ocean Walk is rebranding the former Revel as Ocean Resort, both located at the north end of the Boardwalk. The new Stockton campus will begin classes and have residential dormitories occupied by the end of the summer. South Jersey Gas’ corporate building is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The Steel Pier observation wheel recently opened, as did the Bourbon Room in the former House of Blues inside the Showboat Atlantic City, which is tucked between the two new casinos.

”The new arrivals to the Atlantic City tourism market can certainly be expected to generate considerable publicity and large crowds,” the Levenson Institute report states. “The result of all this activity should be a significant surge in visit-trips to Atlantic City this summer.”

Matt Harkness, property president of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, said “people tend to overemphasize the decline” of the city in recent years “without necessarily understanding that this is still an extremely viable market.”

”I believe in the renaissance of Atlantic City and I am confident Hard Rock will set a new standard in this city and our region,” Harkness said in the report. “It will truly be unlike anything else this town has ever experienced.”

Last year continued a trend toward decreased visits, which have been on the decline since nearly 35 million were reported in 2005. In 1987, the city saw annual visits top 30 million and stay above that mark until 2010.

The figures are based on transportation statistics collected by the South Jersey Transportation Authority and other data points. The Levenson Institute report employed several indicators, including Pleasantville Toll Plaza numbers on the Atlantic City Expressway, which decreased 1.7 percent, the number of passengers who arrive on casino charter buses, a decrease of 103,000 over a nine-month period from the year prior, and chartered casino flights, which increased by nearly 19,000.

One of the report’s authors, Anthony Marino, former deputy executive director of the expressway and Stockton adjunct professor, warned that even if 2018 is a great year for the city, it should not be used as a measuring stick going forward.

“The resort should not assume automatically that if 2018 is indeed a boom year that 2019 and beyond will be the same,” he wrote.

Kelly said the goal beyond 2018 is making sure Atlantic City and the surrounding area is creating the “best possible environment” for continued investment. He said officials have to keep their eyes out for the “next best project.”

”Success begets success,” he said. “If you start to have some investors make that investment — and you do have that going on now — that perhaps is the best catalyst (for continued growth.)”

I cover Atlantic City government and the casino industry since joining The Press in early 2018. I formerly worked as a politics & government reporter for NJ Herald and received the First Amendment: Art Weissman Memorial NJPA Award two years in a row.

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