Officials optimist about economy despite casino woes
Hammonton Town Council authorized Mayor Steve DiDonato to pen a letter to all other Atlantic County mayors requesting everyone enter into a county-wide anti-poaching agreement to keep area businesses in their respective municipalities.
The move made in November of last year was one of the recommendations made in the Atlantic County Economic Development Strategy and Action Plan, which was released in September. The agreement and the plan itself was a sign of how much officials believe in being proactive when it comes to the local economy.
Although there are signs for cautious optimism, there is no question that the county’s economy is on shaky ground, especially with the fate of Atlantic City still so uncertain.
In the county’s own action plan developed by Angelou Economics, the executive summary’s opening paragraph states, “It would be difficult to overstate the precarious condition of the Atlantic County economy, and the acute need for community leaders to implement short- and long-term economic development strategies to reduce the region’s overdependence on the tourism and gaming sector and diversify its economic base.
“Much of Atlantic County’s difficulty stems from two issues: the lack of any significant industry cluster activity other than tourism and gaming, and the lack of a regional economic development organization to brand and market the area and aggressively recruit new companies. To address these and other issues, Atlantic County must adopt a regional approach to economic development.”
The plan advises for the county to diversify the marketplace and not rely on the Atlantic City casino industry like it has for decades. Atlantic City is facing bankruptcy, a possible state takeover and possibly could run out of money soon.
The effects of Atlantic City’s downfall over the past few years has effected not only casino employees, but also other local businesses. Going forward, at the very least, it may affect the tax rate for other county municipalities.
“(Atlantic City) is a concern for us, but I believe we have put the pieces in place to continue to grow, to continue to have positive growth in Hammonton,” Town Councilman Thomas Gribbin said. “The impact I see will be with county taxes potentially and lost jobs in our area. But Hammonton is unique in the fact that we are opening new businesses here.”
Gribbin, who chairs the Business and Industry Committee for Hammonton Town Council, believes that the city has been aggressive in trying to attain new businesses even before the county’s plan was released.
“You are starting to see that come into fruition,” Gribbin said. “Recently we had two breweries open in the town, and we are very encouraged that the Planning Board will approve plans for Tractor Supply to build and open their location on (Route) 206. We have Planet Fitness coming into town in a brand-new location on the (White Horse Pike). We have AtlantiCare expanding, Wal-Mart expanding, you have a medical center at Kessler that should open soon, so we are encouraged. As always Hammonton has seemed to stay ahead of the storm.”
In recent months, Hammonton has also approved its own economic development initiative, which includes tax abatements to improve residences and businesses in town, as well as advertising regionally to bring tourists into town.
“It encourages businesses to move into the area,” Gribbin said of the initiative. “I think we offer a good demographic. Our location sets up for that. Everything the town has been doing the last 10 years — like expanding the arts and culture — has brought in a good deal of people from outside the region into Hammonton to support our businesses.”
He added: “We have potential to make Hammonton not only a leader in the region but also a leader in the state.”
Despite the bad news coming from Atlantic City there have been some positive signs that the economy is in fact improving. According to the United State Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in the county has been steadily dropping. In July of 2015, it was at 9.1 percent and in December it was 7.3 percent, which is still higher than the national rate of 5.0.
Also, in the aftermath of four casinos closing their doors, the remaining casino properties have stabilized since there is less competition to handle the demand of gamblers and tourists.
“You still have a strong gaming presence in the county and in the marketplace, and that presence has significant impact,” Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce President Joe Kelly said. “They still employ well over 30,000 people and then you take in account all of the vendors and all the businesses that do business with them.
“When those 30,000 people are employed, they are the same people eating in restaurants or buying tires in the marketplace. While we are strong advocates of diversifying and adding to that tax base — and strategically we think that is the smart thing to be doing — it is important that we remember that of course they are still here and we want to make sure they stay here and have a presence.”
Outside the casino industry, Kelly is hopeful that Richard Stockton University continues to expand throughout the county, which he believes will only add jobs and business opportunities.
“We are very bullish on higher education,” he said. “We think there is great opportunity for the marketplace.”
He added: “I think Stockton is heading in right direction. The leadership is heading in the right direction. I think Stockton will get the chance to grow that student base. When growing the student base, everything around it grows.”