Sometime after the Atlantic Club Casino Hotel closed, George Norcross decided to visit the Boardwalk casino property to see if he wanted to buy it.
He looked down from the roof of the property and saw an aging, decrepit motel nearby — one he remembered seeing as a child. It was a legacy of the city’s past, one that, despite untold millions in investment, had never been removed.
“Nothing ever happened. All this money and ... . It’s a real tragedy,” Norcross said. “If we’d had casinos in Camden, you’d be looking at Las Vegas East.”
At age 61, Norcross has been called one of the most powerful people in New Jersey. The Camden County Democratic powerbroker is also the chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, head of a national insurance company and also the leader of a coalition of South Jersey Democrats.
But while he wields power, he’s a self-professed salesman at heart. For the past seven years, he has been relentlessly promoting Camden’s climb from the ashes of bankruptcy and violence to a city that President Barack Obama, in a May 2015 visit, hailed as a symbol of hope.
Now he wants to do the same for Atlantic City.
Not so much for the city’s sake, but for what he describes as the “seven counties” in South Jersey that depend on the city for jobs.
Norcross doesn’t think the city or its leaders can oversee that rebirth — not without help, at least.
During a nearly 90-minute interview with The Press of Atlantic City, he said Atlantic City could use the creation of a regional police department, revamping of the city’s education system and development of an entertainment “mecca.”
And he’s here to help, he said.
It’s an offer that elected leaders and union officials here view warily, but Norcross said there’s too much at stake to be concerned about egos.
“What I think is that Atlantic City and our region has one last opportunity to prove to people they can make this place work,” Norcross said. “And I think they can. I really do.”
When Norcross speaks, people listen. His allies and admirers say he brings a track record of accomplishments. His critics say his offers come as ultimatums and threats. Either way, they know not to ignore him.
Friends and critics respect his strategic thinking. He spent time studying Atlantic City’s history, mainly for the mistakes he said were made in its development. Then he applied those lessons in guiding Camden back.
He’s someone who “is playing chess when other people are playing checkers,” said Matthew Hale, associate professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University. The fact he’s interested in Atlantic City could be a sign the city has turned a corner, Hale said.
In Camden, Norcross led the effort to create the Cooper Medical School at Rowan University and the partnership with the nationally renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center to create the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper.
Norcross recalled traveling to Houston to pitch to the leaders at MD Anderson, who he said looked at him skeptically.
“I told them why they should come and what we were going to do to make it happen,” he said. Then, he said, he and others made it happen.
Norcross helped secure billions of dollars in investments in Camden through the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, a state measure championed by his brother, Donald, who is now a congressman but was a state lawmaker at the time. He pushed in 2011 for a county-led police force and “renaissance schools” in Camden.
Cooper was going to fail if Camden wasn’t made a better place, he said. Norcross argued the county-led force would put more officers on the streets in Camden, and county and city officials later carried out the plan.
In 2013, the city fired all its police officers and formed a new county police force. Supporters of the county policing model point to a system that has put more officers on the streets for less money, while critics say it produces high turnover rates and poor working conditions.
Matt Rogers, president of Atlantic City Police Benevolent Association Local 24, said the Camden County Police Department has had issues with retaining officers since its inception.
“Our issue comes with him being involved in the metro model up there, and now he is lobbying for it down here,” Rogers said. “I’ve never had an issue with him. I don’t fault him for anything that he has done, but now attempting to do that, that is an issue and we are going to have a big problem with that.”
Norcross admits he can be a “forceful advocate” for a cause he believes in.
Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he got a sample of Norcross’ methods when they met to discuss the future of Atlantic City, prior to the state’s takeover of the city’s finances. During a meeting at Drumthwacket, the governor’s official residence, to discuss the state’s role, Brown said Norcross sat across the table and asked for his support in turning over the city’s control.
Show me the plan, Brown said. When Norcross wouldn’t, Brown said, he refused to support a takeover.
A few weeks later, Norcross called him again and suggested that if Brown “switched parties and became a Democrat, all of his problems would go away.”
“Ultimately, he made it sound like it was his way or the highway,” Brown said.
Brown rejected the offer. Soon after, he became the target of radio ads from a super political action committee with ties to Norcross. The ads attacked Brown for supporting a rival bill to the takeover.
That year, 2015, the race for 2nd Legislative District became the most expensive in state history, with $5 million spent — $2 million by the super PAC.
“Norcross, particularly, loves power, and he has a lot of it, with dozens of South Jersey politicians owing their careers to him,” Brown said. “Because of that, he is able to influence who gets hired and who gets contracts.”
In Camden, too, where Norcross says he went out to speak at meetings and advocated to community leaders for the changes, criticism remains of what was done.
Many city residents disagreed with the plan to revitalize the city, saying investment often missed the neighborhoods where it was needed, said Darnell Hardwick, president of the Camden chapter of the NAACP.
“The people’s voices are not heard,” Hardwick said. “He had his way.”
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, a Republican, said he knows Norcross’ influence has already been felt in his city, saying the Democratic powerbroker has influenced Christie and his decisions in the state. But anyone who has development interest in this state would likely look at Atlantic City, Guardian said.
“We want development here, but not at a negative cost to Atlantic City residents and businesses,” Guardian said. “I know (Norcross’) reputation, and Atlantic City wants to stay independent.”
Norcross said his interest in Atlantic City stems from the sheer force of the gaming industry’s impact on South Jersey’s economy, estimating 75,000 people depend on the resort.
“If it would collapse, it would be like a depression here,” he said.
He was an early proponent of the state takeover, and was present at a secret December 2015 meeting at the governor’s residence where it was discussed. Since the state took over last November, the city’s finances have stabilized and bankruptcy averted, he said.
Norcross was highly critical of leadership at the local, county and even state levels, saying more cohesive planning was needed to make the resort reach its fullest potential.
“There hasn’t been any leadership,” he said. “For decades now, the leadership there, regardless of who it’s been, has never presented anything other than a disorganized plan of existence.”
Atlantic City Councilman Frank Gilliam, who is running for mayor, said he would be open to any interest in the city, including from Norcross, if it’s for the betterment of residents.
But Norcross said he does not think the mayor’s race outcome will change anything for the city.
He said he doesn’t see a new governor, to be elected this fall, changing the approach of state involvement either, and predicted the state will still play a prominent role in overseeing the resort.
This was despite Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Phil Murphy saying he is against the state takeover and would end it if elected governor. Instead, he has proposed keeping a “partnership” with the city to help get its finances stable.
Norcross’ vision has support from some influential leaders.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said he has met several times with Norcross over the past few years to discuss various issues, including reshaping the city’s economy.
Levinson said his meetings, including the governor’s mansion gathering that later formed the basis for the takeover, stem from his respect for Norcross.
“The reason I met with Mr. Norcross is because I looked at the Camden waterfront, and look at what he got done. He must be a force to be reckoned with,” Levinson said. “If he can bring a positive force to Atlantic County, that is something that we want to explore.”
The same goes for Bob McDevitt, president of Unite Here Local 54, who said he would favor Norcross having an expanded role in the city.
“He is certainly very confident about his ability,” McDevitt said, citing Camden’s development.
“It’s irrelevant to me how the jobs are doled out by politicians, I want results, and there have been no results for the last 30 years in Atlantic City.”