In this particularly cold and forlorn winter at the shore, inspiration has been hard to come by. So, when contemplating the not-so-philosophical question of how to redevelop Atlantic City, I look to the most venerable and enduring member of our community for inspiration. I go ask Lucy. She has been down this path before, in it for the long-term. Lessons can be learned.
Lucy reminds us to be bold (size does matter sometimes) and brash (been mooning Margate for decades), qualities certainly needed at this juncture in our history. But most importantly, she reminds us to start small. After all, how does one eat an elephant? In the same way we can remake Atlantic City, one bite at a time (if this is not overly appetizing, just substitute chocolate rabbit for elephant … feel better?). Roll up your sleeves.
Seafood: The fact is that from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, to the tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore there are millions of people who live in a sometimes precarious relationship with the sea, bays and estuaries. Atlantic City is perfectly and centrally located for a major research center to study this relationship and its many implications for nature, residents and businesses. Attracting tenured faculty, graduate students and federal grant funds, this center would be a perfect complement to Richard Stockton College's undergraduate marine science program - providing visiting faculty members, research opportunities and even the latest in university residential accommodations at Showboat. Rutgers, NJIT or even Stevens could step up to the plate. Some state higher ed grant dollars would help get this started.
Restaurants: A neighborhood to work, live and recreate in? It's already here, call it Chelsea or Chelsea Village or whatever trendy name that attracts the millennials and some of the hundreds of others who already commute to work in the city. Easy to get to from Route 40 or the Atlantic City Expressway, four to five blocks from sea to bay, sound housing that could be easily adapted to demand, a great local city school, nearby restaurants from Tony's to trendy Ventnor, a park of its own, right off the Boardwalk, and plenty of open land to work with. Add a bike/pedestrian path that takes you from the Boardwalk all the way around Bader Field (a new name, Chelsea Meadows?) for tourists, residents and mainlanders to share. Put a well-landscaped and well-lit promenade on the coastal waterway side, add a few restaurants that are outlined by lights at night and we have our own Restaurant Row. A marina for boat traffic would soon follow.
Chicken or egg?: The most difficult part of starting urban redevelopment is starting urban redevelopment, a risky business. Do we wait and hope for spontaneous generation? Or, do we work directly with those who have much to gain and are already committed to the region? Stockton, Atlantic Cape Community College and many outlet stores have made an investment, law firms and AtlantiCare never left. And, no doubt some risk-taking entrepreneurs will find starting a new business in Atlantic City presents opportunities too appetizing to resist. But time is of the essence, a cycle of decline will prove even more difficult to reverse.
Now it is time for the regional utilities - Atlantic City Electric, South Jersey Gas, New Jersey American Water - and the state's research universities, Rowan and Rutgers, as well as banks and perhaps even a state agency to bring a professional/corporate presence to the city. The old high school site would be very welcoming, as would the area around the Carnegie Library. Who has more to gain from a healthy Atlantic City and a healthy region than these institutions? Help them work together with the existing large institutions in town, including the casinos, to formulate an incentive for their employees to live locally instead of counting on tax rebates from the residents. Low-interest mortgages, Jitney discounts, childcare plans and even "locals night out" discounts from restaurants and clubs would all be enticing. Soon you have an appetizing chicken and egg omelet.
Yes, redeveloping the city is a big chore, easy to gag on if attempted all at once. So, break out the knife and fork, this may take a while. If done right, however, even Lucy will remember how she inspired a new era in Atlantic City. Elephants never forget.
Richard Perniciaro, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College.