Kevin Riordan: No takeover here: Christie's semantic power play

Gov. Christie's plan to save what he calls (with signature bluntness) a "dying" Atlantic City may so far lack details, but one thing is already clear.

State intervention to improve the town's casino core is not a "takeover," supporters insist - and, especially, not a takeover like the one previous governors engineered in Camden.

Dubbing that effort a "failure," Christie has noted: "I don't believe the state should be controlling municipalities."

So as for what's coming soon to Atlantic City via Trenton, not to worry.

Christie's people are talking state oversight, not state takeover, of a new "tourism district" that would use the revival-in-progress of downtown New Brunswick as a model for attracting private development.

Regulatory reforms could yield between $15 million and $25 million annually for marketing, including promotion of long-neglected assets such as the underperforming Boardwalk and dune-laden beach.

The notion that the Atlantic City plan is tantamount to a takeover stems from "a very poorly chosen word" in some initial media reports, press secretary Michael Drewniak says. "We're not talking about running businesses. It's far from a takeover."

"I don't want to say anything [negative] toward Camden, but this is a different animal, completely," agrees Kenneth J. Calemmo, chairman of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce.

Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo T. Langford also insists that what some might see as a shotgun wedding with Trenton will instead be a "partnership."

And longtime A.C. radio talk-show host Seymour "Pinky" Kravitz has another term of art: Public-private oversight. "There is no takeover. They [the state] are not going to run the government," notes Kravitz, who chairs the Atlantic City Boardwalk Committee.

With all due respect to these fine gentlemen, terms such as public-private partnership and public-private oversight are a tad bloodless compared to the boldness of takeover, which is both action-packed and in keeping with perceptions of Christie as energetic and unequivocal.

After all, the governor isn't riding a wave of national attention - or is it adulation? - because of a penchant for proclaiming public-private partnerships.

Had he spent the last seven months saying things like, "I'm proud to announce our public-private partnership with the New Jersey Education Association," it's doubtful that luminaries like George Will would find him quite so "interesting."

Christie's Atlantic City initiative - there's a good word - is a serious response to a serious decline in the city's fortunes, as described in a report issued July 21 by a seven-member gubernatorial commission.

Impressive in its sobriety if not its specifics ("it's still early," Drewniak notes), the report finds the gaming industry in "freefall" largely because of increased competition - but also "the perception of the city as unclean and unsafe."

It's worth noting that Atlantic City occupies barely seven pages - less than a third - of "An Economic Recovery Plan for the State of New Jersey." The rest of the 29-page report is taken up with issues involving sports and entertainment-related projects and businesses, including the future of horse racing.

Also worth noting is the presence, if not prevalence, of the word perceived. As in "the perceived need" to "improve the competitiveness of the gaming industry in Atlantic City."

No wonder there's concern that the initiative not be perceived as a takeover.

Or perceived as ironic.

After all, gaming - once known as the less wholesome but more accurate gambling - was sold to New Jersey voters a generation ago with the rationale that casinos would save Atlantic City.

Now, it seems, salvation itself must be saved.

Is there a word for that?


Contact Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.