A few years of near-depression in the Atlantic County economy has made some officials and residents almost desperate for relief. That’s understandable.
But the seriousness of the situation calls for hard realism about what can be done and hard-working dedication to do it. Diversifying an economy and turning it around take time. If people get impatient, they’re tempted to jump at impossible game-changers rather than focus on the more certain incremental improvements.
Two current hopes for the Atlantic City area show the difference.
This month Amazon has been inviting proposals nationwide for a $5 billion second headquarters that would employ as many as 50,000.
That’s far more employees than South Jersey could supply, but that hasn’t stopped Atlantic County and Galloway Township from pitching themselves to the online retailer.
In fact, a look at the requirements Amazon spelled out in its proposal suggests this area hardly meets any of them. It wants to be within 30 miles of a metropolitan center with at least 1 million people. “A highly educated labor pool is critical and a strong university system is required.” It wants a nearby airport with international flights. Those don’t describe the Jersey Shore.
Amazon also wants “a stable and business-friendly environment,” enough to mention it twice. New Jersey over-regulates and happens to rank dead last among states for its business tax climate.
And of course the corporation wants incentives — such as “tax credits/exemptions, relocation grants, workforce grants, utility incentives/grants,” to name a few. Frankly, New Jersey’s state finances wouldn’t allow it to be competitive with other states if it wanted to.
In short, Amazon is a pie so high in Atlantic County’s sky it can hardly be seen. The only corporate location choice perhaps less likely would be a foreign automaker’s assembly plant.
Compare that to the possibility that New Jersey will be allowed to offer sports betting, benefiting the Atlantic City casino industry.
The state has put a lot of legal effort over many years into making that happen, and this year the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear its challenge to the 1992 federal law limiting sports betting to four other states (and only extensively allowed in Nevada).
While a bet on Amazon looks like it offers lottery mega-jackpot odds, the chances of the court granting New Jersey relief look pretty good — better than at a casino. The State and Local Legal Center, a Supreme Court advocacy group, says the court overturns about 80 percent of the decisions it accepts to review.
The head of the American Gaming Association says there’s a trend toward sports betting. And while 14 states have crafted legislation in case it becomes possible, New Jersey and Atlantic City have been preparing for it for years.
“The casinos are already scouting out where the sports books will be located,” AGA President and CEO Geoff Freeman said.
With an estimated $150 billion bet annually and illegally on sports, even a small share of the market would be significant.
Working toward and hopefully capitalizing on sports betting supports a clear regional objective — reviving Atlantic City and its casino industry.
Vainly pursuing or even dreaming about Amazon on the other hand diverts attention and effort from the regional objective to promote diversified, nongaming development.
Atlantic County finally produced its first Economic Development and Strategy Plan two years ago. That identified areas such as aviation-related business that are likely to contribute more to the regional economy.
Officials need to focus patiently and relentlessly on the execution of that plan.
No need to grasp at impossibilities when many good opportunities have yet to be realized.