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Asbury Park's Boardwalk revival could serve as blueprint for Atlantic City

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ASBURY PARK — Former Mayor Ed Johnson still remembers a trip he took to Trenton in 2001.

Then a councilman, Johnson traveled to the Statehouse to persuade legislators to fund a new beach sweeper for the bankrupt city, where the sand was covered in needles, litter and glass.

“I wouldn’t walk on the beach without shoes on,” Johnson said. “That’s how bad it was.”

Vacant, vandalized storefronts and 56 acres of blighted oceanfront properties kept locals away. But in Asbury Park’s empty shoreline, officials saw a path to lifting up the city.

Change started slowly. They assigned extra officers to the Boardwalk and cleaned up the beach to draw visitors, often having to lobby for funding from the state to do so.

The moves helped make the city’s beaches more attractive, and that led to increased revenue from beach tags. Ten years ago, the city collected about $30,000 from beach passes, Johnson said. Now, it’s more than $1 million.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the tides began to turn, and the city made a move that some say Atlantic City could learn from.

Asbury Park named a new developer for retail on the Boardwalk, Madison Marquette. The Boardwalk’s previous developer, the now defunct Asbury Partners, had been neglecting the resort town’s historic, trademark buildings for years before defaulting on a $70 million loan.

Madison Marquette, which owns more than 20 million square feet of retail space in the U.S., has more experience and money than the Lakewood-based Asbury Partners — and it had a focused plan for the Boardwalk that included restoring the historic Convention Hall and Paramount Theater.

Kitschy T-shirt stores and vape shops would not be given space on the Boardwalk, according to Madison Marquette’s vision. Instead, retail would align with “Asbury Park’s vibe” and tap into the city’s history of rock music.

“Wherever you go, people have an Asbury Park story,” said Pasqualina DeBoer, the company’s director of marketing. “It’s a matter of being super protective of that unique spirit.”

Experts often say multiple developers are better than one. If one firm struggles financially, it doesn’t affect the entire city. In 2009, another developer, iStar, acquired Asbury Partners and became responsible for waterfront housing projects.

It’s a blueprint that could, at least partially, be mimicked in Atlantic City.

Atlantic City has no “designated developer” for its entire Boardwalk, though its length runs about three miles longer than Asbury Park’s.

“If you have one or two key developers, they could drive everybody (the existing businesses) together and help guide how the community wants the Boardwalk to look,” DeBoer said.

But Atlantic City has been unsuccessful with naming Boardwalk redevelopers, although several individuals have taken an interest.

In 2015, the resort town briefly named M&J Melrose LLC as the official redeveloper of the South Inlet. The company is owned by Joseph Jingoli and Jack Morris, investors behind Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. Two months later, City Council rescinded the vote.

One obstacle in Atlantic City is that much of the Boardwalk’s real estate is owned by competing casinos. Still, DeBoer said, the casinos could meet regularly and discuss their vision for the Boardwalk as a whole.

“They can come together as a collective and figure out how to each cater to their own,” DeBoer said. “It helps for there to be an overall vision ... but it’s tricky.”

Restaurant owner Marilyn Schlossbach, of Langosta Lounge in Asbury Park, recently celebrated her 10th year of business on the Boardwalk. She recalls a decade ago holding staff meetings in the summer on an empty beach.

A bottom-up approach to revitalizing the oceanfront was key, she said, amid an injection of big developers coming in. Only a handful of Boardwalk stores existed back then, but owners met regularly to discuss the city’s future.

Hoping to attract more homeowners to the resort, Schlossbach said she and other business owners partnered with local Realtors to cater open houses.

“How you engage those bigger things so you can preserve that community safety is important,” she said. “That feeling of ‘We’re in this together.’ You have to have balance.”

People are talking about how to reinvent Atlantic City. Join the conversation here.

Contact: 609-272-7258 Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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