For many years, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funded questionable and politically connected projects around the state. That brought much criticism, including from here, that the money should be better spent, and taught people to be skeptical of its efforts.
The diversion of much CRDA funding to help bail out nearly bankrupt Atlantic City municipal government only intensified interest in ensuring the rest was properly used.
When the state took over city government two years ago, it also gave the CRDA a new focus on helping Atlantic City recover by supporting its tourism and quality of life. Since then it seems that more thought has gone into whether to fund projects.
One prominent example is how much the authority seems to have cooled to continued funding for what’s now called the Miss America Competition.
After having provided $4.3 million a year for three years, the authority seems to be heeding the view of local officials and many in the public that the value of the event to the city is nowhere near that. Most recently it merely said it has not discussed any proposal for continued funding.
A worthier project is the latest attempt to get a major supermarket to open in the city. The governor’s Johnson report on the city’s progress made it a key part of the effort and the CRDA got it rolling by hiring a supermarket development consultant.
Critics will note that past efforts didn’t last long, with the most recent ending in 2004 with the closing of an IGA supermarket after issues with theft and vandalism.
Preventing that fate for the next supermarket will be one challenge. Another will be supporting it long enough for it to take root. CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty said the supermarket “is a necessity to attracting middle-class families to Atlantic City.” True, but middle-class families are a necessity for supermarkets to succeed as businesses. Solving this chicken-and-egg problem with the supermarket first will only work if it can persist until the middle class is strengthened.
Another well chosen effort is $700,000 in CRDA funds to promote esports events at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall for the next year and a half. Competitive video gaming is growing fast and appeals to young people, so it has the potential to significantly expand the city’s entertainment and tourism.
Meanwhile, a city ice skating rink already built through a public-private partnership is getting a cold shoulder from the CRDA. Doherty said recently that he didn’t think it was worth CRDA funding for needed improvements to the Flyers Skate Zone building at Bader Field.
That’s sort of understandable, since even though the rink is almost always busy its revenue only covers its operating expenses — no money back to the CRDA or for capital projects.
But it does partly fit the CRDA’s stated mission of economic and community development, drawing skaters and hockey players from the region and providing recreation for youths in a city with too few such opportunities. Dozens of kids skate there with the Art Dorrington Foundation League, and more would go if families were aware of the opportunity and easier transportation were available. An 8-year-old city girl putting on her skates put it well recently: “I like learning new things.”
Mayor Frank Gilliam said he didn’t think the rink benefited the community and that “hockey is not a sport this urban area is fans of.” That’s a stereotype that similar rinks in Pennsauken, Voorhees and North Philadelphia show is unwarranted.
The rink’s legitimate issue for the city and the CRDA mission is that it largely serves the region and not just Atlantic City. But that’s not a reason to close it, just to create a support base that’s appropriate.
For starters, the CRDA should look at how the other Flyers Skate Zone locations are funded, to ensure that the contractual arrangements at the Atlantic City location are appropriate and to see if they use some sort of regional support plan.
Figure skaters and hockey players are coming to it from throughout Atlantic and other counties. Maybe the charge to use the rink could be high enough to cover all of its costs and counties could fund coupons for residents to help keep it affordable for them — thus ensuring they’re only supporting their own residents’ use.
This important recreational facility already exists and is working. It would be a shame if it disappeared in the cracks between government entities.