A Postcard From Atlantic City

This year has been a particularly bad year for Atlantic City. The New Jersey seaside resort saw the closure of four of its casinos this summer, resulting in thousands of people losing their jobs.

In many ways, this was hardly a surprising development – indeed, the only real surprise is that it took so long for Atlantic City to stumble so badly after barely making its way in a crummy economy and in view of the proliferation of multiple gambling venues in neighboring states.

Atlantic City is a textbook example of how not to coordinate community redevelopment. When the casinos started opening in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the focus was strictly on the celebrated Boardwalk area, where most of the hotel/casinos were located. The heart of the city itself, I am sorry to say, remained something of a mess – as the seaside fringe of Atlantic City absorbed millions, almost nothing went to the rest of the city.

The result of this wildly uneven division of attention and funding is painful to view. If you should visit this city, I would recommend that you stick to the Boardwalk and make no effort to engage in pedestrian visits in the neighborhoods just behind the seaside hotels – trust me, this is one of the sketchiest areas I’ve ever gone through, and I would never get out of my car and walk around there.

John Luciew, a columnist for PennLive.com, recently offered his idea on how to reinvigorate Atlantic City’s depressed fortunes. He placed forward a quintet of growth areas that he believed would spur growth: an emphasis on retail development, with an eye on upscale stores; a focus on highlighting and opening fine dining establishments; an attempt to play up the area’s history in order to lure in tourists; a new campaign to play up Atlantic City as a family-friendly environment; and encourage development of residential and commercial properties over what Luciew calls “large swaths of available land.”

“The expansive tracts of nothing but weeds, overgrown grass and sandy dirt rank as eyesores and symbols of everything wrong with the city, as it exists now,” Luciew wrote. “But residents who saw Atlantic City’s charms and were lured by its low real estate prices and incentives to buy, build and stay insist there is a real estate market yet to be tapped. Already, ideas as extreme as giving away land, along with seed money as incentives, are being bandied about. The catch is that incoming residents would have to stay for a decade. And they would share in the city’s back-breakingly heavy tax burden, which is only getting worse as casinos close, pursue real estate reassessments and even sue to reclaim past over-payments to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.”

While Luciew’s ideas are certainly well-intended, they nonetheless make the same mistakes that brought about Atlantic City’s decline: an acute focus on a single industry. Luciew seeks to continue the problem of encouraging businesses that offer low-wage employment and rely heavily on trying to lure away consumers from well-established shopping centers, dining establishments and family-friendly attractions. Nothing good can come of that, especially when the economy as a whole is pretty sour.

As for the real estate angle, why would anyone want to build or buy a home in an era that is an economic disaster? There is a reason for weed-choked tracts of empty land, and the promise of new shopping malls or kiddie parks is not going to boost up the local economy.

In September, the Atlantic City metropolitan area had an unemployment rate of 13.8 percent, nearly double the national unemployment level. With no one rushing in to take charge of the shuttered hotel/casinos, it would seem that something different is needed to boost the local economy.

My idea is this: let’s bring together a gathering of mortgage lending experts from both the commercial and residential real estate industries. Let’s take tourism- and hospitality-related off the table and focus on developing properties that could be used for growth industries and the housing needed for the workers in these industries. And let’s find ways of improving the existing infrastructure – starting with the tiny Atlantic City International Airport, which cannot handle any great influx of visitors (a key turn-off in attracting big-money national B2B conferences that go to other cities with proper airports).

Yes, the emphasis on gambling helped revive Atlantic City three decades ago, but it is not working now. And I can’t expect the federal government to do anything to help – and since New Jersey’s governor is too busy running for president, I wouldn’t expect any help from him.

Instead, let’s bring the best minds in this industry together to fix Atlantic City and rebuild it so it can truly become a destination where people want to visit and live. Mortgage bankers have done wonderful work in rebuilding distressed areas – it’s time for Atlantic City to get that positive energy for its long-deserved resurrection.

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