The fundamental problem with Atlantic City the past few decades is well-known. It’s a problem of human nature that has been widely understood since the Brothers Grimm popularized it in a fairy tale two centuries ago.
The powerful state of New Jersey gave struggling Atlantic City a nearly magical golden goose in the late 1970s. The goose laid golden eggs of casino gambling money, which were divided among the state, local governments, and area people and businesses.
For years this was the only such golden goose in the eastern U.S. and the golden eggs were plentiful. Then other states and cities realized they could have a little golden goose too, sometimes hatched with a gaming company’s golden egg from Atlantic City’s goose.
New Jersey and local political leaders could have used some of their eggs to make their goose stronger and healthier. They could have used some to create silver geese to provide diverse sources of wealth. Instead they spent their golden eggs and lived quite well for years.
Too late they realized that there is a limited number of golden eggs regardless of how many golden geese states and cities have. New Jersey and the Atlantic City area would have to make do with half the eggs they used to get, and even those were at risk unless they changed their wasteful ways.
The state takeover of Atlantic City was necessary because city government’s reckless mismanagement might kill their golden goose. It also allows the state to address the shortcomings in its oversight of and involvement in the city.
After taking tough emergency actions to stabilize the essentially bankrupt city government, New Jersey has produced a solid plan to broadly restore the city — its economy, local government, even its quality of life.
This ambitious and sensible plan rests on seven pillars, as the state’s Special Counsel Jim Johnson told The Press editorial board recently.
These include rebuilding the strength of the casinos, boosting job opportunities, improving public safety and its perception, addressing disparities in the health of residents, better planning and developing the city, making the needs of youth central to restoration efforts, and creating an effective and durable city government.
Johnson and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs oversees the state’s Atlantic City project, have encouraged the public and local stakeholders such as the city’s strong civic associations to engage in these efforts that will benefit them as much as anyone.
Seeing this impressive attempt to restore the city’s vitality, people might be tentatively pleased but tempted to wait and see how the implementation goes. That would be a mistake. There’s no time to wait. Change is already way overdue.
Worse would be failing to learn the fairy tale’s lesson that self-interest is fine in moderation but reaches a point where it is self-defeating.
This is the best and least traumatic opportunity to replace the too common attitude of “what’s in it for me?” with “let’s make Atlantic City thrive again and then there will be more for all of us.”
That’s a choice many will have to make and in doing so, decide much of the future of the city and surrounding area.
Stories in a yearlong series examining the city’s path forward, Reinventing AC, appear frequently in the news pages. Join the conversation at ReinventingAC.com.