The recovery and reinvention of Atlantic City is a multi-phase project. The current state-led effort was chugging along until the pandemic crushed the national economy. The city’s loss of jobs and business was among the nation’s worst, with its dominant casino industry shut down for 3½ months.
Gov. Phil Murphy, who ordered that shutdown as part of efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, recently said the pandemic has left the city and New Jersey “facing a recovery challenge unlike any Atlantic City and the state has faced.” Even greater, apparently, than the city’s mid-20th-century collapse, for which the state prescribed a casino gambling monopoly.
Having been blown off course by the pandemic, the state and city surely would benefit now from restoring the business and jobs lost to COVID and getting back on the path toward revitalization. That’s the purpose of the recently issued report from the Atlantic City Restart and Recovery Working Group — created by the state last summer to draw on input from officials, organizations, businesses and residents.
The 57-page report echoes and reasserts many of the goals in the report nearly three years ago of Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy on Atlantic City. After the state took responsibility for the nearly bankrupt city’s finances, Johnson helped develop the state plan for making city government sustainable.
Johnson’s report envisioned a much-improved city supported by seven pillars. These included rebuilding the strength of the casinos, boosting job opportunities, improving public safety and its perception, addressing disparities in the health of residents, better planning and developing of the city, making the needs of youth central to restoration efforts and creating an effective and durable city government.
The Restart and Recovery Working Group report recommends efforts to improve maternal and infant health, a key need identified soon after the state takeover. These include early pregnancy outreach and remote monitoring of care in high-risk pregnancies.
The city’s community policing initiative should be expanded. Housing for homeless families and individuals should be established. The redesign and repurposing of Atlantic Avenue should be continued. The multiple layers of permits and approvals required for businesses and projects should be coordinated and streamlined.
More recreation programs should be created for city youth and more sports facilities provided. The Atlantic City Jobs Council should be reconvened to assess employer needs and help people get that work.
One new target seems overestimated. Developing a “Blue Economy” around the neighboring ocean is presented as a way to lessen the city’s dependence on tourism and the casino industry. Stockton University might develop a robust ocean science component if the state allows it and offshore wind power might have a city presence, but the oceanfront location seems more likely to bolster tourism than add a nontourism industry.
That’s OK. And it’s fine that the report doesn’t explain how its many projects would be funded and moved forward.
New Jersey and Atlantic City must get their bearings again after the extraordinarily disruptive past year. Keeping the lines of communication open between all stakeholders and making sure everyone is generally working toward the same better future are important after such a major city-state operation has been stalled.
May Atlantic City have the great summer it deserves and, in the words of Mayor Marty Small Sr., get back “everything and more that the COVID-19 pandemic took away.”