ATLANTIC CITY - Bader Field is Atlantic City's field of dreams, a city-owned parcel that could steer the direction of future development in the resort. And for the past two years, everyone has banked on one familiar, slightly amended adage: If you advertise it, they will come.
City officials needed no convincing of that in late 2006, when casino and residential developers flooded City Hall with preliminary proposals to buy the development just after the old municipal airport was officially closed. Everyone wanted a shot at the 143-acre tract. Some even risked - and eventually received - jail time to get the inside track.
Fast forward to this week's celebratory announcement that offers for Bader Field would finally be solicited, featuring the forced enthusiasm of city leaders speaking before a scant crowd. What a difference an economic meltdown can make.
Many believe the financial crisis has quickly dried up interest in the property and predict the city's request for proposals is like a test drive leading nowhere.
Planning Director William Crane said it's very likely the city will close the bidding process, set to end Jan. 14, without a deal.
"There's just no money out there to loan and no deals can be made," he said.
"It may be that the bids come in and they're ridiculously low," said state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-2nd. "We have to wait and see."
The city reserves the right to pull the property off the market if it does not find a suitable offer.
Interested developers already face extreme hurdles before they can build at Bader Field. The economic climate will amplify them all.
One of the most challenging feats for any potential developer is solving Bader Field's inevitable traffic congestion and establishing the money and consensus to get it done.
The property essentially sits on an island within an island - connected to Atlantic City by only a busy roadway already battling congestion problems.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has commissioned several studies, and the state agency is still finalizing an assessment of the city's transportation as a whole. That study includes analysis of Bader Field.
Crane has met with CRDA officials about the unfinished study and discussed some of the preliminary suggestions to improve access.
The most visionary plan would be an addition to the roadway at the base of the Atlantic City Expressway, creating a "loop around" leading visitors to the sprawling tract after they've entered the city.
State and city officials believe the plan could relieve some concerns about Bader Field siphoning off tourists before they have a chance to see what else the resort offers.
"That's probably a preferred route for the existing casinos," Crane said, referring to that plan.
Another potential change would be building an additional lane to the expressway's connection to Route 40 at exit 2. Others have suggested simply adding a new exit off of the expressway, connecting drivers to the waterfront property directly. But neither of those plans addresses the possibility of directing tourists away from the rest of the city and depleting business on the Boardwalk.
"I think you're going to need some combination of all three of those plans," city engineer Bill Rafferty said.
Any one of the plans would be pricey, and the city hopes to avoid those costs. Developers are asked to present their own access plans in their bids, and the city expects the successful bidder to fully fund its plan.
However, Crane noted there is always the potential of creative financing, referencing Revel Entertainment Group's successful plan to obtain private-bond financing with cheaper municipal interest rates.
"We had a partnership when we did the tunnel, and that was partially the developer and also the state kicking in," Crane said. "I don't think, at this juncture, we're expecting any state funding given the state of the economy."
Utility upgrades needed
Unlike the city's H-Tract, where the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa now sits, Bader Field has all necessary utilities running to it - at least, those capable of operating a small-plane airport.
To power a casino, or potentially several casinos, officials say significant upgrades are a must.
"I can't imagine you can operate a casino on something that small," Rafferty said. "They've got some significant changes (needed) there."
Rafferty said additional electrical lines would have to be installed and upgraded to transfer enough power to the site. But the biggest upgrades, Rafferty said, will be for the sewage and gas systems.
Active sewage is drained from the site by Atlantic City Sewerage Company through an 8-inch sanitary sewer main on Route 40. South Jersey Gas delivers natural gas through two gas mains along Route 40; one 12 inches, the other 8 inches.
"Technically, these upgrades will go into the $15 million to $20 million range," Rafferty said. "But everything depends on what is (built) on there. But yeah, it will be significant."
One exception to utilities that need work is water. The Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority provides water to the property through a 48-inch cast iron water main, which officials believe is more than sufficient to supply to any development proposed.
Despite the fact the main is 72 years old, ACMUA Executive Director Neil Goldfine said the provider requires little maintenance.
"Repairs would be our obligation, but that line is in outstanding shape," Goldfine said.
Politics and rhetoric
Political maneuvering infuses nearly every issue in Atlantic City. The only difference with Bader Field is the stakes are far higher.
The bureaucratic process the city slugged through to finally solicit bids was filled with accusations and attacks among resort and state leaders.
Tensions built when city officials began swooning over an $800 million offer from Penn National Gaming in January. Soon Mayor Scott Evans was publicly lauding the offer and seemingly ditching the CRDA's proposal to manage the sale of the site for $25 million in tax relief.
The city's reaction ultimately led to state Sen. Whelan's bill to take control over the final sale or lease of the property, which Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed into law in August.
"We could be proceeding a lot faster and more aggressive if we didn't have this bill to abide by," Councilman Dennis Mason said after one of city's several deadlines to finish the request for proposals came and went.
Some city officials still complain the state's involvement slowed down the sale of the property, and, in doing so, cost the city at least portions of the $17.25 million in annual property taxes the city could collect after a sale.
The rhetoric has cooled now that the process is out of the government's hands until Jan. 14. But both sides are privately bracing for more battles once an offer is eventually brought to the state.
"I think it can be done collaboratively," he said. "There's only one way to do this and it's to put it out there and see what we get. We'll just have to go from there."
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