ATLANTIC CITY — Gov. Chris Christie's vision for an Atlantic City tourism district may now include Bader Field, a now-defunct municipal airport once regarded as one of the most coveted pieces of developable property on the East Coast.
Assemblymen Vincent Polistina and John Amodeo, both R-Atlantic, provided a few details Wednesday of what the governor's bold but vague plan will feature. They said the tourism district could have a potential operating budget of $110 million and would include major tourism draws — expected to include areas of the city's marina district, the shopping district known as The Walk and the 142-acre Bader Field site that has been left unused for more than four years.
The district was already expected to stretch the length of the city's Boardwalk and to make the high-tourism area cleaner, safer and more developed. Christie announced the plans in late July after assigning an out-of-town advisory panel to draft recommendations to revitalize the resort's business and economy. But the recommendations made no mention of city-owned Bader Field.
But Polistina, who has consulted with the Governor's Office on the plan's progress, said that negotiations have included discussion of Bader Field. "As of where we are now, yes, we are very optimistic that Bader Field and other key tourism sites may be included," he said.
Polistina said that, because of the economy, it would be "tough to tell" what type of project could be built at Bader Field.
"I personally think some type of mixed-use development would be good, with some type of year-round attraction," Polistina said.
Amodeo described the site at Bader Field as a long-term investment for the region.
"Obviously, we should work on the casino areas first," he said. But he added that a developed Bader Field could be "like an annuity for the city."
City Council members on Wednesday opposed the suggestion of Bader Field's possible inclusion in the district.
"That's our last chance to make some cash," City Council President William "Speedy" Marsh said about the property. "It seems like the longer this goes on, you can see the state's arm extending farther and farther."
Calls to the Mayor's Office went unreturned Thursday. Business Administrator Michael Scott said Mayor Lorenzo Langford intended to comment publicly but decided to have a resolution drafted regarding the issue instead. He did not provide details of the measure, and nothing was formally presented in public.
City Solicitor G. Bruce Ward told council members the administration wanted to discuss Bader Field in executive session. Ward declined to discuss why the conversation needed to be closed to the public, which is reserved for personnel and litigation issues.
Asked after the meeting whether the discussion was related to a resolution opposing the inclusion of Bader Field in the district, Marsh smiled and said, "I can only smile at you."
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who had no knowledge of the parcel's possible inclusion before being informed by The Press of Atlantic City, said, "I think it makes sense."
Whelan noted that the governor's plan hoped to transform Atlantic City into a more family-friendly destination, which he said could be accomplished at a location such as Bader Field.
"Bader Field could easily be a family entertainment zone," he said, noting the site already features the Flyers Skate Zone and the abandoned baseball park formerly known as Bernie Robbins Stadium, which was once home to the Atlantic City Surf baseball team. "Having family entertainment alongside casinos is probably not realistic ... But Bader Field is removed from that."
"The big question is, where does the $110 million come from?" Whelan asked of the district's proposed operating budget.
In 2006, a casino analyst suggested Bader Field could sell at more than $1 billion as a site for a casino, condominiums and retail stores. But amid the recession in 2008 and 2009, the city received no official offers for the property after soliciting bids.
The potential inclusion of the former airport would increase the power the state already holds over the bayfront tract. In 2008, Whelan pushed legislation that required state approval of any city sale of the property after it had become the subject of a bribery scandal involving elected city officials. The state adopted Whelan's plan after the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority's failed effort to buy the property from the city for $25 million, with hopes of controlling its marketing and development. Former Mayor Scott Evans rejected the offer.
Whelan and fellow Democrats tried to put more power into the hands of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority officials on Monday, suggesting they control the governor's tourism district, a proposal criticized by Polistina and Amodeo on Wednesday.
"The CRDA has been a political operation for the 25 years it has been in existence," Polistina said. "We have no interest in having that organization manage the district, and continue to operate with political influence."
Amodeo said safeguards may be put in place to prevent every new political administration from installing a new head of the district.
"Political patronage won't be tolerated in the new district," Amodeo said. "By giving private industry a say over that role, we can avoid politicians trying to install a new person every few years."
Bader Field's inclusion by administration officials now signals that the planned tourism district will encompass far more than solely casinos.
The new details about Christie's plan come as Republican administration staff work to finalize draft legislation, largely devoted to reducing regulations at the state's only casino resort.
That legislation is under review by legal staff in a move to make the new regulatory structure watertight.
Councilman Frank Gilliam, who chairs the city's Planning and Development Committee, emphasized a need for the Governor's Office to better communicate with city officials about their ideas for the proposed district. He said city leaders have thus far been left out of the planning.
"We both need to share our ideas," he said, noting that the city might have an interested developer for the property. He claimed Larry Silk, the real estate broker the city recently hired to market the property, claimed to have an interested buyer.
Gilliam did not know any further details about the potential developer, but said the city is gearing up to put the property back on the market through a formal request for proposals.
Atlantic City: What needs to be done
Gov. Chris Christie's plan for Atlantic City is intertwined with a series of wider proposals to help boost the state's gaming, sports and entertainment assets. Rival bundles of legislation are being drafted by the Republican administration, and by Democrats determined to block parts of the Governor's plan. Both seek to revitalize Atlantic City, while Democrats are also trying make state-run racetracks solvent.
Republicans want the state to scale back its involvement in racetracks completely. To find a compromise on the ambitious proposal, Christie must:
- Identify and secure enough funding from existing sources within Atlantic City agencies to fund the district on an annual basis. This means he can enact his plan while keeping his promise to residents, that the Atlantic City plan will not cost any additional taxpayer dollars.
- Identify a consensus-builder, possibly from the casino industry, to take the helm as CEO of the new tourism district and its public-private partnership. That appointment could help smooth
concerns among senior Democrats, who would like to see private industry take final responsibility for the district.
- Reach agreement in principle on what to do about racetracks — which may mean supporting Democratic-led proposals to push for more
kinds of revenue to pay for racing operations. Those sources could include expanded forms of horse-betting and full batch of off-track-wagering parlors statewide — all possible through
legislation — and pursuing sports betting and an intrastate system of online gaming portals, operated by the casinos, both of which are only
achievable through challenges to federal law.
- Once those agreements are in place, Christie can deal with resolving major policy points regarding Atlantic City — including who should police the new district, and what roles the existing staff of state agencies such as the CRDA and Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority play in the new district hierarchy.
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