N.J. panel to discuss Atlantic City survival strategy

The opulent but troubled new casino complex in Atlantic City has created only 2,780 full-time jobs thus far - half of its original promise.
The opulent but troubled new casino complex in Atlantic City has created only 2,780 full-time jobs thus far - half of its original promise. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 19, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY - The state's Assembly Tourism and Arts Committee meets here Wednesday for a special public hearing.

Call it a mini-State of the State of Atlantic City.

With gambling revenue continuing to tumble - as evidenced by the recent financial travails of the $2.4 billion Revel, Atlantic City has to come up with another strategy to survive, and hopefully again thrive.

The hearing, which will feature the state's heavy hitters in travel and tourism, comes at a crucial time. Atlantic City clearly has its back against the wall as gambling competition in neighboring states has eaten its lunch and caused a ripple effect on new casino development here.

Hard Rock International announced last week it was dropping out of a proposed $300 million casino hotel for the southern end of the Boardwalk.

The highly anticipated Revel Casino, which debuted April 2 and was heralded by many as Atlantic City's future, has performed well below expectations. The megacasino, which received over $300 million in state aid to get built, asked lenders last month to double its credit line to $100 million to get it through the rest of the year and 2013.

Gov. Christie announced a five-year revitalization plan here two years ago, which included implementing a state-run tourism district with a new master plan intended to enhance public safety, beautify the Boardwalk, and alter Atlantic City's overall image. A five-year, $30-million-a-year marketing effort by the nonprofit Atlantic City Alliance started in mid-April to tout the resort's non-gambling attractions.

The legislative panel on Wednesday will take testimony from local residents, business people and representatives of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, Atlantic City Alliance and New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, among others, on ways to boost tourism here.

"It is crucial to focus on how important the success of Atlantic City is to the state of New Jersey," said Assemblyman Christopher A. Brown (R., Atlantic), a member of the tourism and arts committee who collaborated with chairman Matthew W. Milam (D., Cape May) in bringing the panel here.

Brown, who is serving his first term, said current statistics warranted it.

Tourism is the third-largest industry in New Jersey behind pharmaceuticals and investment banking, generating $38 billion in revenue annually. Of that, Atlantic City represents 30 percent of all tourist spending, twice the amount of any other region, according to the New Jersey Office of Travel and Tourism.  

Atlantic City alone provides over 55,000 tourism jobs in the South Jersey region.

"Atlantic City is to tourism what the ocean is to the beach," Brown said. "Nongaming attractions are necessary to continue to provide steady growth for economic development ... and ensure Atlantic City remains a premiere destination resort."

One such attraction is the arts and its increasing role here in the coming years. Lance Fung of New York-based Fung Collaboratives - an internationally acclaimed curator of massive, contemporary public art projects, will be presenting Wednesday. Fung, hired by the Atlantic City Alliance this year, is working with several plots of land that he's converting into public art attractions that will debut in the fall.

Chairman Milam, who said the hearing was a continuation of the committee's "on-the-road show to see things first hand," will also provide an update on how the new tourism district has fared, and what more the state Legislature could do to aid Atlantic City.

The Legislature passed several measures last year to kick-start Christie's revitalization plan, including the creation of a tourism district and streamlining regulations to make it easier for casino developers to enter the market.

"The success of Atlantic City impacts not just the local region, but the state," said Milam on Tuesday. "It's imperative that we find ways to keep the 'World's Favorite Playground' a top destination for visitors, especially as more competition creeps up in neighboring states.

"Atlantic City has to almost reinvent itself," Milam, who owns a trucking company in Cumberland County, added. "It's the same for any business - if you don't do it, you're going to stagnate."

The hearing starts 11 a.m., Wednesday, at Dante Hall Theater, part of Richard Stockton College, at 14 N. Mississippi Ave.

The public is encouraged to attend.

Contact Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2855 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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