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ATLANTIC CITY – Voters in this seaside gambling resort turned their mayor out this week after a single term in which five of the city’s 12 casinos shut down and the state seized control of its assets and major decision making power.
But Atlantic City appears to be on the rebound from its woes, and the incoming mayor, Democrat Frank Gilliam Jr., stands to benefit from a turnaround that began under the man he defeated Tuesday, Republican Don Guardian.
While Guardian presided over the cratering of the city’s casino industry and unsuccessfully tried to fight off a takeover by his own political party led by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Atlantic City also began a recovery under Guardian whose fruits could blossom early in a Gilliam administration.
Next summer, the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal casino will reopen as a Hard Rock casino resort, bringing new life — and new gambling and hotel revenue — to the Boardwalk. The former Revel casino also could be sold to someone who will reopen the glass-enclosed resort that shut down after little more than two years of operation.
And Stockton University will soon open its Atlantic City satellite campus as part of a project that also will build a new corporate headquarters for South Jersey Gas in a section of the city starved for economic activity.
Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said most people in the region believe Atlantic City has put its worst problems behind it, and are optimistic about a coming wave of development.
“Part of Don Guardian’s greatest legacy will be the fact that he believed in and worked for a diversification of the city’s economic base, and, as mayor, Frank Gilliam certainly will be able to reap some of the credit and benefits for projects initiated in the Guardian administration,” she said. “Hopefully Mayor Gilliam will take a page from Mayor Guardian and continue the process of attracting a wide variety of businesses and enterprises to Atlantic City, which will only serve to strengthen the city and the region.”
In addition to inheriting some of Guardian’s successes, Gilliam also will inherit his unsolved problems, including the state takeover; hundreds of millions in debt; the stalled development of a former airport property, and a city economy that, while less dependent on casinos, is still inordinately affected by their success or failure.
The casino closings had their roots in forces beyond Guardian’s control, and that began eight years before he took office. The addition of casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania in late 2006 severely hurt Atlantic City’s casino industry, and new casinos continue to be added throughout the northeast.
And many voters are still seething over the state takeover, which took effect a year ago when Christie decided Guardian was unable or unwilling to make the hard choices needed to stabilize the city’s finances and reduce its half-billion dollar debt.
“The way the governor treated the city of Atlantic City is abysmal,” said Sherry Elder, a senior citizen who voted for Gilliam. “No taxpayer should be treated the way we were. We have good people here who want and deserve good government.”
Gilliam has his own plans to boost Atlantic City’s fortunes, starting with an audit of its finances. He also promised to work closely with incoming Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy, who has promised to end the state takeover of Atlantic City.
The mayor-elect wants to add affordable housing; clean up Pacific Avenue, the blighted strip that backs up to the Boardwalk casinos; attract more non-gambling development and provide incentives for small businesses.
Gilliam also promised government would work across bureaucratic boundaries in a city where numerous state agencies held vast power even before the state takeover.
“Atlantic City has been working in silos for 30 years,” he said. “We have to talk to one another.”
Follow Wayne Parry at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC