A.C. speakers say gambling not the future

Posted: September 21, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY - This ailing Shore resort, which has had more misses than hits in recent years, needs to wean itself off gambling and bet on the arts, museums, golf courses, or better promotion of local wineries.

That was the chorus among the invited speakers at a public hearing here before the State Assembly Tourism and Arts Committee on Wednesday.

"It's about turning to other sectors," said John Palmieri, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), as he testified at Dante Hall Theater on North Mississippi Avenue. "It's our responsibility to grow the base. Adding more nongaming attractions is absolutely integral to creating a more diverse economy."

That reaching out extends to other associations, such as the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association, which announced it just received $250,000 in funding from the CRDA to market all 19 golf courses in South Jersey to better compete with Ocean City, Md., which according to New Jersey officials spends more than eight times as much as Atlantic City to promote its golf courses.

Grace Hanlon, director of the state Office of Travel and Tourism, said the partnership between the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association and the CRDA will promote the area "as the premiere golf destination on the East Coast."

The CRDA, which receives funding from casino proceeds, was granted more authority by the state Legislature 18 months ago and is overseeing the state-run tourism district here and a new master plan. Palmieri said the agency is preparing to merge with the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority - which was once the city's chief marketing arm.

The re-branding of Atlantic City now falls under the CRDA-created, nonprofit Atlantic City Alliance, which is behind the five-year, $30 million-a-year "Do Anything, Do Everything, Do AC" tourism campaign touting the resort's non-gambling attractions.

"The goal is to get AC back on its historical trajectory of growth," said Jeff Guaracino, chief strategy and communications officer for the Atlantic City Alliance.

Tourism is a $38 billion-a-year industry in New Jersey, and Atlantic City represents 30 percent of all tourist spending - twice the amount of any other region, according to the New Jersey Division of Travel and Tourism. The resort provides more than 55,000 tourism jobs in the South Jersey region.

Revenue decline

But Atlantic City's main industry - casinos - is hurting badly (gross casino revenue of $3.3 billion in 2011 was down $1.9 billion from the peak year of 2006 here). The decline in gaming revenue has had a negative effect.

Last week, Hard Rock International announced that it was dropping out of a proposed $300 million casino hotel for the Boardwalk.

"Atlantic City is at a strategic crossroads in need of revitalization," Guaracino said.

He said the city needs to attract more conventions, meetings, and citywide events. His group will launch a $6 million fall ad buy. Among the TV spots will be one urging visitors to "Do Change," which is part of the "Do AC" campaign.

Visitor volume to Atlantic City fell from a high of around 35 million in 2006 to about 29 million in 2010.

Several who testified, including the heads of the South Jersey Cultural Alliance, Noyes Museum, and ArtC - an organization to promote the arts in South Jersey - hope the arts will play a bigger role in spurring visitation and investment here.

"If we nurture the arts, it can grow to become an effective economic tool," said Assemblyman Christopher A. Brown (R., Atlantic), who sits on the tourism and arts committee.

Public art

Lance Fung of New York-based Fung Collaboratives, an internationally acclaimed curator of massive, contemporary public art exhibits, said he was attracted to Atlantic City because of its rich history, culture, and people.

Fung was hired by the Atlantic City Alliance in April, for a task he described as "taking large lots that are unbelievably unsightly and turning them into incredible, visionary sets."

The first of those lots will debut in November on the site owned by Pinnacle Entertainment Inc., where Sands Casino Hotel once stood.

"We need money from you," Fung implored the committee, led by Chairman Matthew Milam (D., Cape May). "If you give Atlantic City a chance, and the state shares in this vision of making the arts a part of its future, it has a very strong shot."

Local painter Margerita Frank, 49, of Galloway Township, just wants a place for other artists like herself to be able to congregate.

"We need an area where artists can get together and leave our stuff," she said.

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

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