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Rethinking, Reinventing, and Rebranding Atlantic City

'Clean and safe,' 'sophisticated and glamorous,' 'a beacon of culture' -- does Atlantic City have identity issues?

By moving a committee hearing to Atlantic City, state legislators got what they were hoping for: good news, or at least cautiously optimistic assessments, about the future of the embattled resort and its environs.

Leaders from a variety of casino, civic, and arts organizations touted everything from a new parking garage to volleyball courts to lightshows to the prospects for luring bohemian artists to rundown areas.

Even as they praised each other’s collaborative efforts, though, many urged the Assembly Tourism and Arts Committee to take a regional approach and support programs beyond the city borders and outside official plans.

Three months into a $20 million advertising campaign focused on Middle Atlantic markets, surveys show it is beginning to work, according to Jeff Guaracino, the chief strategy officer of the Atlantic City Alliance, a marketing group backed by the gaming industry.

Fun City

Encouraged by the “Do AC” campaign, “fun seekers” are starting to see the city as “more sophisticated and glamorous, less rundown,” he said. At least that’s true for those surveyed in Baltimore and New York City, while the “Philadelphia market has been a tougher nut to crack,” Guaracino said.

Not quite a year into his job as executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, John Palmieri was able to recite some tangible progress in town. That includes the new Wave parking garage with retail space and solar panels, the $35 million Margaritaville project] at Resorts Casino Hotel, and even a new Bass Pro outlet just approved by the city.

But even as the CRDA looks to support nongaming initiatives, Palmieri said the wherewithal to do them depends on the local casinos maintaining their financial footing at a time when competition is up and visitors are down.

“We need them to succeed, not necessarily that their percentages are going up, but to where there’s some stability,” he said.

The area and industry should be encouraged that while local numbers have been down, “the entire country has been down.” With a state-authorized tourism district and master plan, Atlantic City has been able to focus on key issues, such as creating “a clean and safe environment” for visitors and residents, he said.

Guarded Optimism

That kind of hedged positivity echoed throughout the session, crammed into a lovely meeting area at the recently reopened Dante Hall Center for the Performing Arts at St. Michael’s Church on Mississippi Avenue. The setting itself reflected the resort’s re-growing pains, with stained glass windows, reasonable acoustics, low-key lighting, and seating for about 50 of the 80 audience members.

In one sense, the crowd was welcome. During the period from 2006 through 2010, the number of annual visitors to Atlantic City dropped by six million, roughly 17 percent, according to Guaracino. Crucially, that decline started before the onset of the Great Recession, as gambling venues sprouted like mushrooms across the nation, including neighboring states.

The casinos launched countermeasures, renovating or rebranding some properties. The Christie administration provided $261 million in tax incentives to get the stalled Revel casino off the ground, but revenues over the summer were lower than target figures to pay off bonds for the project.

Even with increased attention from the state and the casino-backed marketing program, Atlantic City still lags its major competition when it comes to luring visitors, said Assemblyman Chris A. Brown (R-Atlantic), a member of the committee.

“Las Vegas spent $60 million on promotion last year, we spent $3 million,” Brown said. “We’re up to $30 million now, but my job is to get it to $60 million.”

The committee chair, Assemblyman Matthew Milam (D-Cumberland) agreed, saying tourism is one area where bipartisan agreement is both essential and fairly easy to find.

After outside tour bus operators complained about being subjected to a New Jersey tax, the Assembly promptly passed a bill to exempt them, Milam said. He added he is optimistic that the state Senate and Gov. Chris Christie will quickly agree.

A Bigger Picture

But as Atlantic City is finding out, the picture is bigger than just gaming. If South Jersey and the rest of the state want to increase tourism revenues, they need to understand the money comes from a variety of sources, according to Milam.

“Along with tourism and the arts goes the history of the state,” he said. “They’re all in there together, you can’t separate one out.”

All three categories combine to bring an annual $1.2 billion in revenues to New Jersey, Milam said, “so why wouldn’t you invest in that?” But rather than push particular legislation, Milam said the purpose of the hearing was to “make ourselves accessible” to hear ideas and requests.

Several of the speakers, like Palmieiri and Grace Hanlon, state director of travel and tourism, arrived from a press conference in Northfield, where they announced a $250,000 marketing campaign with the Greater Atlantic City Golf Association.

Attracting major golf events to South Jersey would in turn mean “bringing thousands of people to our restaurants, our hotels, our retail venues,” Hanlon said.

Representatives of other industries said they could use the same sort of help. While gambling may have been good for the region over the past 30 years, Maureen Bugdon, president of the Atlantic City Race Course, said it has harmed her business.

Off-Track Betting

The track shut down for two years to help casinos get off the ground, and they in turn contributed to a fund to help offset the effect on the tracks, Bugdon said. But in recent years, money has been diverted for use elsewhere in the state, she said.

At Bellview Winery in Landisville, switching from vegetables to vineyards helped maintain the family farm, said owner Jim Quarella. South Jersey wineries already promote themselves and cooperate in “wine trails,” and a little help from the state, such as more complete website, could go a long way, he said.

“I’m very optimistic” about the prospects for strengthening South Jersey’s cultural attractions and tourist appeal, said Michael Cagno, executive director of the Noyes Museum of Art in Oceanville and Hammonton.

The folk art museum already has established a cooperative venture with Stockton State College and a valuable relationship with the CRDA, he said. Of 20 listed speakers for the hearing, “I have already partnered with 14,” he said.

But over the years, Cagno said, he has grown weary of hearing analyses of how to revitalize Atlantic City and environs.

“If you’re going to ‘do’ Atlantic City, just do it,” he said. “Don’t keep talking about it.”

Like Cagno, Cynthia Lambert of the South Jersey Cultural Alliance was particularly enthusiastic about one imminent project, prominent SoHo art curator Lance Fung’s effort to transform lots and other spaces around the city into public art displays and installations.

The idea is to “see vacant lots as an empty canvas” that can be filled with works that beautify the city and give residents an opportunity to enjoy and interact with them, she said.

New Jersey Culture

The loquacious Fung was among the most cheerful speakers, readily confessing that in Manhattan, “we don’t think about New Jersey culture.” Having journeyed to the other side of the river and far beyond, Fung said he learned “it’s not all bridges and tunnels.”

Not only was he warmly welcomed by official groups and artists, local construction companies and building trade unions have also bought into the idea of multiple outdoor or readily accessible artworks, along with small parks to add greenery to the manmade landscape, Fung said.

By offering showcases for young artists, Atlantic City has “a strong potential for becoming a beacon of culture for New Jersey,” Fung said.

Many of the officials present quickly latched onto that idea. Not only does the area have a supply of affordable housing that could be attractive to young artists, Brown said, but it offers the possibility of “having their work seen by people from all over the world.”

Not everyone jumped aboard that train immediately. At the scheduled end of the hearing, painter Marguerita Nanfara of Galloway spoke up from the audience. The first thing local artists need is someplace to develop and safely maintain projects, she said.

“We don’t really have an art center, a place to work” with good spaces, lighting and access to supplies, Nanfara said.

Afterward, Nanfara said she was surprised by the hearing’s emphasis orientation toward gaming and already announced projects. She spoke out because “I though this was supposed to be for them to hear from local artists and the community.”

Cagno intimated that moving away from being a simply a center for gambling day-trippers may be complicated than some of the official statements suggest.

“Just because you establish a tourism district, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to deal with the community every day,” he said.

During three decades reporting in New Jersey, Joe Tyrrell has covered everything from Avon to Zarephath, with a particular emphasis on politics and government, the environment and agriculture. He founded the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, which unites civic groups, citizens and journalists to promote transparency and ethics.

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