New mayor, new outlook for Atlantic City’s future

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

You could make all the gambling analogies you want, but over the past five years, Atlantic City has been rolling snake eyes. Five casinos closed, thousands out of work, a local tax explosion and finally, a state takeover. But Mayor Frank Gilliam, who spoke to the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce on Friday, says the city is dealing from a new deck now.

“You can almost feel the energy in the air. We have Stockton University which will be opening in 2018. We have South Jersey Gas corporate offices that’s also going to be opening in 2018. We have Hard Rock Casino that going to be opening in 2018. We have the Ocean Resort, which is the old Revel that’s going to be opening in 2018,” said Gilliam.

Gilliam says that translates to jobs for Atlantic City residents.

“It means we’re going to be putting some of those 8,000 to 10,000 people who lost jobs from the closing of the casinos back to work,” he said.

That laundry list of progress was not created in a vacuum. The state takeover, despite its political pains and the harsh austerity it imposed, has helped to make some of the city’s current rebound possible. Still, the mayor says he’d be happy to show the state the door.

“It could not be any faster,” said Gilliam. “I’m a firm believer that the state can be a partner. We all know that hasn’t been the case in Atlantic City, but they have to basically take the noose off of my neck.”

Meaning, the ability to pick his team and call his own shots. But the mayor says he’s optimistic and part of that comes from the fact that there’s a new governor. While Phil Murphy hasn’t set a date for an Atlantic City exit, officials expect a much lighter touch and an open door from the new governor.

“I’m also encouraged by the governor and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver appointing Jim Johnson to come down here. I think that’s a positive move. Jim Johnson is a talented career servant and I think it’ll work out,” said Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz.

Johnson, a former Treasury Department undersecretary and a gubernatorial candidate, won’t be the new face of the state takeover. So far, Jeff Chiesa remains in that job, although for how long seems in doubt. Instead, Johnson will be working on a plan for the city after the state leaves.

“I welcome anyone’s presence who’s coming to help the city and figure out ways that we can improve ourselves. I wouldn’t dare be close-minded about anyone who’s supposed to be coming to the city to help us change the condition, so I’m looking forward to sitting down with Mr. Johnson,” said Gilliam.

The mayor says success in 2018 should be measured in the thousands — thousands of new jobs, thousands of new visitors and, most optimistically, thousands of new residents. And after the string of bad luck this city has seen, that would be most welcome news indeed.