Separating social services from New Jersey’s premier Tourism District in Atlantic City is taking a lot of time and requiring considerable patience. That’s understandable, since multiple agencies and nonprofits are involved, and the state is appropriately acting with carefulness and compassion.
Seven years ago in a guest commentary on these pages, the late state Sen. Jim Whelan made the need for such action obvious to all, saying in part, “Atlantic City cannot be the economic engine for the region with an economy based on tourism if it is the premier site of social agencies that serve the homeless.”
In 2015, the city and the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority acquired the location of the John Brooks Recovery Center for more than $8 million as part of a successful plan to relocate it to Pleasantville. City Council last year voted to relocate a needle exchange program, which is still being worked out.
More challenges remain before Whelan’s vision is fulfilled. Commenting this year on people in need who flock to the city’s main Pacific and Atlantic avenues for assistance, many of them out-of-towners, City Council President Marty Small Sr. said, “We don’t want our streets to look like this anymore. … We need drastic change.”
The effort to relocate a soup kitchen that has operated in the city for most of the casino era shows even well-planned efforts can stumble.
The CRDA agreed to fund $1 million in renovations to a new location outside the Tourism District bought by Sister Jean’s Kitchen in 2017. But it turned out renovating the building would cost much more, and the plan fell through. Then in February, the soup kitchen’s existing location, damaged by Hurricane Sandy and deteriorating since, was declared unsafe and closed. The Atlantic City Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army Atlantic City Corps have provided food assistance to offset the soup kitchen’s loss.
Recently, the CRDA voted to reimburse Sister Jean’s up to $300,000 for what it spent on the building that later turned out to be an unsuitable relocation site. Prudently, the authority retains a lien on that property which, if the nonprofit sells it, would allow it to recover some or all of its reimbursement.
Perhaps the state has gone out of its way to be fair and appropriate in reimbursing Sister Jean’s, but that’s fine. This clears the path for the nonprofit to find another, more suitable location outside the Tourism District.
The problem is not only that tourism and such afflictions as homelessness and drug addiction don’t mix. It’s also that many New Jersey municipalities prefer to see people in need go to inner cities instead of providing services to them. They shamefully have often provided one-way bus tickets to be rid of them.
The Tourism District must cease to be a place that draws people in need because that’s where the social services are located. It is unfair for Atlantic City to bear a greatly disproportionate share of addressing homelessness, substance abuse and poverty in New Jersey. And it cheats the region’s economy and the state itself to misuse the state’s top tourism destination for such purposes.