ATLANTIC CITY — Walking through the South Inlet last summer, among vacant buildings and lots, David Green pictured sleek research centers set beside the ocean.
There, the urban designer thought, scientists could study climate change in a community that’s bearing the brunt of sea level rise.
Empty casinos, a symbol of the city’s economic decline, would be turned into “innovation campuses” for laboratories and staff housing.
In Chelsea Heights, an agricultural research district would be built a few miles from a storm system test center in Venice Park. Experts would visit for conferences, and along the Boardwalk, a public art installation called “The Line” would represent expected sea level rise in Atlantic City.
“We call it science on display,” said Green, principal of Perkins+Will. The urban design firm created a unique plan for Atlantic City in 2015 to help guide the small resort town out of its reliance on gambling for tourism.
Four years on, the idea has gained some traction. Last week, the state Senate’s Environment Committee passed a bill designating Atlantic City as “an international center on global warming and change.”
It’s an ambitious proposal, but one Atlantic City is in a position to take on. Unlike casinos, climate change research hubs aren’t emerging in nearby cities— and there are only a few in the world, Green said, namely the Netherlands.
Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who sponsored the bill with Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, touted the plan as a way to create jobs in a city of 40,000 people.
The county government passed a similar resolution last year, and Mayor Frank Gilliam has said he wants the city to be a ”hub of innovation.”
But tangible results have mainly happened on a small, grassroots level.
Carly Griffiths, a Stockton graduate, began organizing a climate change conference for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) last year. She wrote a letter to the Press of Atlantic City about sea level rise and was contacted by David Dichter, an Atlantic City native and Marine Corps veteran who has long hoped to see the resort pivot from gambling to research.
He convinced the group to hold its conference in the resort.
“(I) have been working on this project on a pro-bono basis for the last several years in an effort to help our city chart a new professional direction for itself,” Dichter said.
In January, about 250 people visited the city for the two-day Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference at the Claridge Hotel, where NBC10 meteorologist Tammie Souza gave a talk on climate change in the media. The New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management also held a conference last October at Bally’s Atlantic City, where Dutch flood control expert Edgar Westerhof talked about coastal resilience.
Still, the bulk of the plan rests on whether research institutes want to build in the city.
Stockton is considering constructing a $41 million Marine and Environmental Science Center on Bader Field. The 600,000-square-foot building would accommodate about 500 students and would have docks and ramps for access to the ocean and bays.
The city and university are conducting a feasibility study with a $100,000 grant. A task force plans to meet in late April to assess the progress, the university said.
“What’s happening in Atlantic City is a lot of talk in terms of what they would like to do,” said Sabrina Fu, coordinator of the CCL’s Mid-Atlantic Region. “Between the talk and actually getting, there needs to be a lot of concrete action and self reflection.”