There have been many unworthy and wasteful development proposals for Bader Field, the former Atlantic City municipal airport. The most recent was floated in the spring, a plan to build townhouses and condos there along with a Formula One-style auto racing course. If that were allowed, it would very likely join Atlantic City’s long and sad history of failed sports developments.
The size (150 acres) and waterfront location of the property mean it could strongly contribute to the city’s restoration after its near bankruptcy. But city officials repeatedly have sought quick sales for far less than its potential, with a bribe involved in at least one case.
So when Mayor Marty Small Sr. casually told a regional development meeting Thursday that the city would soon announce the lease of Bader Field for 99 years for a major development, a red flag went up that should be visible from Trenton. He wouldn’t say anything else about it, other than to confirm it didn’t include Stockton University building a coastal institute on a small part of Bader — the most sensible suggestion for the site in recent years.
The threat of city misuse of its major property holding has been so great that New Jersey had to enact a law in 2008 giving the state Local Finance Board authority over any development at Bader Field. Questions could be raised even about that backstop protection while the state has financial control of Atlantic City and might be tempted to join a self-serving deal itself.
In one of the city’s early attempts at cashing Bader in quickly, Atlantic City Councilman Ramon Rosario was recorded taking a bribe from an FBI informant in exchange for future development work at Bader.
Bad ideas for Bader have included filling it up with houses and condos, adding a casino or two just as the overbuilt city gaming market was about to close four casinos in a year, and covering it with youth athletic fields anchored by the cheesiest of all developments, an inflatable building.
We understand that development projects can’t be made public until details and agreements are worked out and financing is lined up. But none of that should move forward until after the public has been allowed to consider the plan and its impact on the future of the region. Officials shouldn’t even think of signing a century-long lease that could waste one of Atlantic City’s best opportunities until it’s clear there are no significant public and legal objections.
Maybe it will all be good news, a plan made with due diligence that openly seeks the support it needs and deserves. Given the city’s abysmal record on Bader, fear of less than that looks entirely justified. From the public’s point of view, a secret Bader plan is a bad plan.
This much is certain. The worthy redevelopment of Bader Field would dramatically strengthen the visitor appeal of Atlantic City and its casino industry. The project’s success and contribution to the regional economy would be hard to imagine if it fails to do that.