ATLANTIC CITY — Starting about 6 a.m. and working through the day, a small team of employees and volunteers from Mike B’s Café and Cedar Food Market cooks and prepares hundreds of meals inside the kitchen at the All Wars Memorial Building for senior residents.
Each week for the next month, more than 3,700 seniors will receive free meals as members of the Atlantic City Department of Public Works, Police Department or Fire Department rotate delivering the food, Monday through Saturday, to buildings across the city, including Jeffries Tower, Best of Life, Community Haven and Altman Terrace.
The senior hot meals program is just one of several emergency initiatives, totaling more than $183,000 in costs, fast-tracked by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The authority also immediately funded food assistance and outreach programs for Jewish Family Service, the Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County and Gateway Community Action Partnership, in addition to allocating more than $2 million for regional small business relief.
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“There’s a real feeling on the board that we have responsibility to the people in Atlantic City,” said CRDA Chairman Robert Mulcahy. “There’s a unanimous feeling on the board to do anything we can to help (in the current) situation.”
The oft-maligned state agency — the only one of its kind anywhere in the country — has a complicated relationship with Atlantic City residents and business owners, who routinely question CRDA spending and its duty to the city. A 2018 state audit criticized the authority for financial and operational mismanagement, resulting in millions of dollars being spent in ways that had little positive impact on the city.
A self-described “observer” of CRDA, Geoff Rosenberger is among a handful of residents who routinely attend the agency’s monthly public meetings and remind the 17-member board that Atlantic City’s needs should be paramount. He said CRDA has “been moving in the right direction,” but there is still room for improvement.
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“I believe that me being vocal has helped to reorient them toward the people of Atlantic City,” Rosenberger said. “We may never know how much is a dog-and-pony show and how much is sincere, because of the politics involved with the whole thing.”
But, as thousands of locals lost their jobs because of the mandated closing of almost all businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, CRDA was among a host of local players to take swift action and assist the community.
“This is what people look to in a time of crisis, they look to their leaders,” said Mayor Marty Small Sr., a CRDA board member who spearheaded the senior meal program. “Kudos to the (CRDA) board members who have jumped at every level, all of them, to assist the good people of Atlantic City.”
Small credited CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty, a former mayor of Belmar, Monmouth County, who took the helm in the summer of 2018, for “understanding what needs to be done” at the municipal level, but also for moving the authority in a direction that more directly benefits Atlantic City.
“I’ve said it privately, and I’ll say it publicly as well: I believe (Doherty) has been the best overall CRDA director when it comes to Atlantic City,” the mayor said.
The CRDA’s focus on Atlantic City has not been limited to responding to the resort’s needs during a pandemic. More than $10 million has been spent on public safety, $15 million for an expansion of AtlantiCare’s city campus and millions more on social services, redevelopment projects and entertainment in the past two years.
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Doherty said the long-term plan for CRDA was laid out in the state’s transition report, which advocated for a more “active role” by the agency in shaping Atlantic City’s future.
“I think that during this time of crisis, (CRDA’s role) is just highlighted more,” Doherty said. “And we’re trying to move as quickly as possible because the needs are developing quickly.”
Vice Chairman Rich Tolson said the COVID-19 crisis reinforced his belief that CRDA should be taking a leadership role in bringing together Atlantic City’s social service agencies. A cohesive social service network would allow CRDA to more efficiently determine needs, he said, which may have meant a quicker response at the onset of the pandemic.
The unconventional intergovernmental agreement with Atlantic City and $69,552 contract to Mike B’s Cafe for the senior meals program drew questions from CRDA board members last month about whether proper protocols were followed. It was both an example of members’ due diligence and the need for a more collaborative approach when dealing with Atlantic City’s complex issues.
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“I think we did a great job in responding to the city’s needs with the pandemic,” Tolson said, “but we need a more comprehensive, consistent approach to identifying and resolving issues.”