ATLANTIC CITY — Stockton University isn't starting with a shuttered shell of a casino this time.
Instead, it has a parking lot and two empty fields at the southern end of the city, near homes, small shops, and the beach.
There, at the intersection of Atlantic, Albany, and Pacific Avenues, Stockton plans to finally create its long-discussed Atlantic City campus by putting up three buildings: a housing and student center on the Boardwalk for 500 or so students, a parking garage with 850 spaces topped by new offices for South Jersey Gas, and an academic building for up to 1,800 students.
Residents in the Chelsea neighborhood largely welcomed the campus, saying they hoped the influx of students, faculty, and staff could fuel a rise in small businesses nearby.
"It'll be good. Because it's dying over here," said Shena Dos Santos, 21, who has lived in the area for seven years.
The battered resort town has lost 22,000 jobs, a 14 percent decline, since an employment peak in 2005, according to a report last month by the South Jersey Economic Review, published by Stockton's William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy.
In December, Atlantic County's residential foreclosure rate was more than double the statewide rate and nearly five times the national rate.
"This town is dead," said Mindy Feldman, who worked in a casino for more than three decades and recently moved back into the neighborhood, where she grew up. "We need all the help we can get, business-wise. We need help; the city is sinking."
The presidents of Stockton and of the development group heading the project warned during a recent walk-through of the campus site that the project isn't a magic cure for the city's troubles.
But their hopes do echo residents’: that carefully planned buildings could integrate students into the community, attract business, and anchor further development.
The $207 million campus is set to open in fall 2018.
"Everybody looks at Atlantic City and they look for the quick fix: What's the next tourism gimmick? This [project] is treating Atlantic City like a real city," said Chris Paladino, head of the recently formed Atlantic City Development Corp.
The current Stockton plan is more modest than last year's failed attempt to turn the former Showboat casino property into an "Island Campus" with five times as many students living on-site.
Put together, the three new buildings will have less than half the square footage of the casino and won't require the high maintenance and operation costs that the three-decade-old Showboat property did.
"The project is 180 degrees different," said Harvey Kesselman, a longtime Stockton administrator who became president last year after the Showboat fiasco. "If it wasn't in the same city, you would never associate them."
But where the New Brunswick group largely expands existing spaces — Rutgers' New Brunswick campus or Johnson & Johnson's buildings, for example — the Atlantic City project is the first time Paladino's team is creating a campus where none currently exists.
The challenge will be to create a space where students want to live.
"If you spent the first two years at Galloway, you became used to a certain standard," Paladino said. "We want to continue that experience for the Stockton students by enhancing it with now having an experience of living at the beach."
A residential building on the Boardwalk will have 18,000 square feet of retail space in three corners, including a Starbucks. Other amenities include ocean views, fitness space, and bike and surfboard storage.
The campus could eventually accommodate 1,800 students, including commuters. Stockton expects to launch with 1,000 students.
"We expect Galloway students to be coming over here to use this facility as kind of a home base," Paladino said. "Say you've got a 9 o'clock class and a 1 o'clock class, so you go for a run on the Boardwalk, change in the locker room, and get back to class."
The exact academic offerings are still under discussion. Programs already in Atlantic City will remain, Kesselman said, naming the master's program in social work and in physician assistant studies. Hospitality and tourism management, he said, would likely want to take advantage of the new campus' location.
Walking around the site, Kesselman exudes enthusiasm in bursts as he calls for his companions to imagine the buildings, the quad, students walking through the neighborhood: "You have to use your imagination. All of this here will completely change."
But a major development project also needs a pragmatist.
That's where Paladino comes in. A little more reserved, he refers to the site maps and renderings he's holding. He cites research about the students, neighborhood, academic programs.
Both men are excited about what the university might do for the neighborhood and are working closely with city planners.
"Bringing in a project like this, that will change the dynamics and bring in people that can support businesses or support the real estate values," said Elizabeth Terenik, the city's director of planning and development.
"Education has been one of the leading economic development tools for cities, and it has worked in a lot of other places," she said.
Malvin Martinez, 52, who has lived in the area for 16 years, said he hoped college students would frequent the local shops but he also sees the campus as providing an important option for local students who otherwise might not have easy access to four-year colleges.
"Something for the people," he said. "They don't have to spend a lot of money to go to Pennsylvania, New York."
That's also an important consideration for Paul A. Spaventa, the interim superintendent of the city's school district.
"It certainly would be beneficial for the kids to have a campus right here in the city, without a doubt," Spaventa said.
Stockton and the school district have begun trading ideas about expanding their relationship, including the potential to share athletic facilities and to create dual-enrollment programs for high school students to receive college credit.
Kesselman said the campus offers lots of possibilities: "It should be a campus where we might want to pilot new ideas."
And building from the ground up will offer creative freedom, he said. "When you create a new space, like where we're at now, there's boundless kinds of opportunities."