Officials Tout Atlantic City Redevelopment Project Amid Critics of State Control

By Brenda Flanagan

A band in hard hats played and shovels ceremoniously bit some sandy soil as Atlantic City’s comeback gained momentum at the corner of South Albany and the boardwalk. Already under construction, the $220 million Atlantic City Gateway Project will combine an upscale corporate headquarters for South Jersey Gas and an oceanfront Stockton University residential campus, set for completion in fall 2018.

“Today we take the first steps of a new journey, one that recommits our intellectual promise to the residents of this city and all of southern New Jersey by establishing a new branch campus on the world’s most famous boardwalk,” said Stockton University President Harvey Kesselman. “A 533 student residences overlooking the beach with shops, food and for a change, parking galore.”

Developers called the 675,000 square foot complex in Atlantic City’s Chelsea section the “first major redevelopment project in a generation” in this city, as it continues struggling to overcome the catastrophic casino market crash that devastated its ratable base. But tensions remain high as many city officials chafe under state control, an almost total takeover of local government and finances.

“All that stuff took a long time because you’re fighting against a lot of special interest forces that want the spending to continue unabated because it’s always easier to spend other people’s money,” said Gov. Chris Christie.

Christie says the state takeover can claim credit for the city’s rebound — a 5 percent property tax cut, a first quarter pop of 7.7 percent in gaming revenues and a refurbished Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. But the governor later acknowledged city residents are deeply upset about the state’s plans to possibly sell or lease its water utility — the Municipal Utilities Authority, one of its last remaining large assets.

“These decisions have to be made in a very orderly fashion. I’m not taking anything off the table. But what I’m saying is that when the city stands up and says there’s something they’re very, very protective of — which they are of the MUA — then that deserves, in response, a very thoughtful conversation with them about anything that you may do concerning the MUA,” Christie said.

But critics circulated petitions opposing state control and sale of their water utility and brought in outside advocates to help.

“This is not merely about dollars and cents, it’s about human beings,” said Cornell Brooks.

Brooks heads the national NAACP, which joined local opponents of the state takeover in their own news conference today.

“If water rights are civil rights, civil right are human rights. If we understand that water is a public resource, how then can our water be sold without hearing from the people? Fundamentally, this is about democracy. And so we are standing with these partners, we’re standing with the citizens of Atlantic City, calling on them to sign these petitions, that your voice might be heard,” Brooks said.

Critics of the takeover admit that the petitions carry no legal weight but say they make a powerful political statement.

WEB EXTRA: Gov. Christie answered reporters’ questions on a variety of topics after the groundbreaking ceremony for the Atlantic City Gateway Project.