As a candidate, state Sen. Chris Brown said he would form a panel of Atlantic County stakeholders to develop legislative goals to help revitalize the local economy. In February he appointed the Economic Revitalization Advisory Committee (whose dozen or so members include the publisher of The Press), and this summer they delivered their consensus on what priorities he should pursue, which he has released.
Some of the 11 recommendations are familiar, some are surprising and all are of interest to residents and businesses in the county.
No. 1 is support for a Garden State Growth Zone around Atlantic City International Airport to encourage aviation development, widely seen as the best chance at diversifying the county’s tourism-based economy. Local legislators got that bill passed once, only to see it vetoed outright by then-Gov. Chris Christie. Now Gov. Phil Murphy has conditionally vetoed this year’s version, so the task has become working toward the best terms for the county that are agreeable to the governor and Legislature.
The committee’s No. 2 recommendation is to build upon eight federally designated (and little known) Opportunity Zones in the county. Investors in the zones can get reductions in their capital gains taxes. The state could permit public-private partnerships in the zones, give entities there grant preferences and designate a senior official to coordinate the effort.
Two specific bills comprise the third priority. One would create an Atlantic County Tourism Enhancement Fund for regional tourism promotion, using money remaining from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s Atlantic City tourism promotion fee. The other would be a revised version of Brown’s bill last year to create a county tourism grant fund, to give the county marketing grants commensurate with the sales and occupancy taxes it generates. The funds from both would be managed by the Atlantic County Economic Alliance and used for campaigns through the Southern Shore Regional Destination Marketing Organization.
Priority No. 4 is a popular one already getting much support: Keep the CRDA focused on making the Atlantic City Tourism District clean and safe. The committee simply urged Brown to support ongoing efforts such as relocating social services out of the district and addressing abandoned homes within it.
Absent bipartisan support for countywide property assessment for tax purposes, the committee recommended that the state bolster Atlantic City’s assessment office. Better to spend money on more accurate property valuations than on defending the city’s many tax appeals.
The committee also urged legislation to allow the CRDA to finance highway and air service projects in support of the city’s Tourism District, preparing for a day when the agency might again have enough funds for such work.
On the somewhat contentious proposal to let people carry open alcoholic beverages in the Tourism District, the committee urged Brown to sponsor legislation to allow it. This “would put Atlantic City in league with other tourist destinations such as Las Vegas Strip, Beale Street in Memphis, the Tampa Riverwalk” and others, it said.
The committee’s eighth recommendation is for Brown to co-sponsor a bill to create an Urban Enterprise Zone in Atlantic City, cutting the sales tax in half and using most of it for a decade for local purposes such as property tax relief. The Legislature and Gov. Murphy this year revived expired UEZs in five cities, including Bridgeton, but only for five years — and with a requirement that they be studied to determine whether the program should continue or not. The state’s desperate need for revenue may someday reclaim UEZ taxes.
A new commission is proposed to study the possible benefits and feasibility of getting the airport designated as the nation’s 11th commercial spaceport. Projects to address flooding at Atlantic City Expressway Exit 2 at Albany Avenue and create a full intersection at the Black Horse Pike and West Jersey Avenue in Cardiff are also urged.
Finally, the committee wants Brown to advocate for Stockton University to receive its fair share of direct state funding in next year’s budget. It currently gets $2,043 per student, compared to the public-college average of $3,284, the committee said.
Since Brown is in the minority in a Legislature controlled by Democrats, these 11 priorities would need bipartisan support to advance. To get that, they’ll need broad public support from Atlantic County residents and businesses. Views will surely vary on what’s important, but everyone can be grateful to the committee for providing specifics and enriching the conversation about how to improve the local economy.