Hope for this Atlantic City comeback to be the one that sticks

Since the state takeover in 2016, residents of Atlantic City have been told that better days are coming, and, while for many residents things are the same as they ever were, there are genuine signs that the tide may be turning in AC.

“You look at places like Long Branch or Asbury Park that have been so successful redeveloping their urban communities along the beachfront, Atlantic City is the next one to go,” said Matt Doherty, a former mayor of Belmar, a successful, albeit smaller seaside town about an hour north. He now runs the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the CRDA. The authority’s mission is to parlay casino industry success into redevelopment projects around the city.

“At CRDA we’re in charge of the land use, so we act in a way that tries to make the ground as fertile as possible for that redevelopment,” he added, “so when you mix in the attractiveness of more capital, vacant lots that are oceanfront that you can’t find anywhere at the Jersey shore, we think we have the right recipe for success.”

On the macro level, you can see the new Hard Rock, the Ocean Resort, the Stockton University expansion and the South Jersey Gas corporate headquarters. But those are the big ticket items of a comeback, and while they are critical for jobs, it’s on the micro level where real change is going to happen.

One of the neighborhoods that holds great promise for city officials begins on Tennessee Avenue. The boardwalk is just a couple of blocks away, the beer garden’s already open and a lot of the vacant property is ripe for development.

Developer Pat Fasano was a pioneer of the Asbury Park comeback 20 years ago. This year, he took his profits and trailblazer spirit down the parkway to Atlantic City, where he’s bought a city block and opened Bourré, a New Orleans style restaurant and bar. He and a few other developers hope to turn the stretch of fallow land into the Orange Loop – so named for the properties on the Monopoly game – a hip haven for, you guessed it, millennials.

“We’re going to be going in for approvals as soon as the end of this year, we’re hoping to build a shipping container hotel with an outdoor food court and a summer stage, a parking lot where we hope to do craft markets and flea markets and then some mixed use buildings,” he predicted. “It’s very important that we start to build residential. We need a residential component that’s not the high end. It’s for the people who work in Atlantic City.”

Fasano is no philanthropist, though. Part of the reason he’s sold his Asbury properties and purchased millions of dollars of property down here is because of Opportunity Zones, a new federal program that uses tax incentives to encourage the type of investment Fasano is making. Atlantic City has four such zones.

“And as long as you do business and you spend your money in the zone, that money is going to be tax-sheltered for 10 years,” he said, “and then the taxes are due in I think, 2027 or something like that, but then you get a stepped-up basis so any gains you make in the Opportunity Zone will be yours to keep tax exempt.”

Success of the Orange Loop would be seen as a big deal around here, but its vision is outward. Looking inward – building supermarkets and schools and playgrounds for the people who’ve been here through the darkest days, is a big part of the mission for the state’s new Atlantic City czar, special counsel Jim Johnson, who’s just issued a report on how the state can help return all of Atlantic City to firmer footing.

“One of the things about any plan is that it is only paper unless you can implement it, and this plan has many recommendations, many of which are already underway, but to make sure that we can cross the finish line, you have to have a team that’s dedicated to working the problem, working on the solutions, and executing,” said Johnson.

And that means local political stability, now in question after Mayor Frank Gilliam was roundly criticized for his role in a melee outside a casino bar a couple of weeks ago. On the record, state officials have expressed concern and a wait-and-see attitude over the incident, for which the mayor has not yet been criminally charged. Behind the scenes, though, the word is that this Atlantic City comeback is bigger than any one elected official. The mayor couldn’t talk to us about the incident or anything else related to the city, according to his chief of staff. He’s too busy, she said.