Atlantic City touts rebirth, dreams of an 'adult district' for legalized weed enjoyment

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. at the annual State of the City luncheon inside Boardwalk Hall.

ATLANTIC CITY — On the Atlantic City Expressway, the new billboards are touting June 28 openings for the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and the Ocean Resort Casino, two mega-casinos that will replace the Trump Taj Mahal and the Revel.

Meanwhile, on Tennessee Avenue on Wednesday, Hard Rock executives won casino licenses from the Casino Control Commission.

And down the Boardwalk, in the faded but magnificent Adrian Phillips ballroom of the Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall,  the mayor of Atlantic City was playing Springsteen, Sinatra, and L.L. Cool J (Don’t call it a comeback/I’ve been here for years), to declare an unusually optimistic State of the City: “We are opening the door to a new era.”

“I feel exuberant,” Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. said. He said that there would be no tax hike in the city’s budget, and that he was hopeful that legalized marijuana would come to New Jersey, to be enjoyed in his town in an “adult district.”

“We’re looking forward to being one of the municipalities where you can come in and enjoy the plant,” he added.

It was a pointed bookend to the State of the City speech given in 2015, following the closures of four casinos in 2014, when Gilliam’s predecessor, Don Guardian,  woke up to news that a unit of Caesars Entertainment had filed for bankruptcy.

“At least we’re not Detroit,” Guardian said, and then saw himself presiding over a city that teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and state oversight not unlike Detroit.

On Wednesday, the State of New Jersey was still making its presence felt, though in a much less combative way than former Gov. Chris Christie, who battled the city and ignored the mayor when he was in town.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who oversees the state takeover begun 18 months ago under the Christie administration, also predicted a new, exciting era for the historic resort, citing Stockton University’s new campus and Boardwalk dormitories opening this fall and the two new casinos, and said the state would work to improve the lives of the city’s 10,000 children.

But Oliver made it clear the state is not leaving any time soon.

“We are going to work collectively and make sure, as the legislation defines, that we are out of your hair within a five-year period,” she told the gathering at the ballroom, which was attended by just one City Council member, a sign of the contentious and complicated local political scene.

Many in Atlantic City had anticipated, despite legislation that gives the state authority for five years, that the takeover would essentially end under the Murphy administration.

Oliver noted after the speech that she had mostly cut off the work of Christie ally and former U.S. Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa and his politically powerful North Jersey law firm, which billed taxpayers more than $4.8 million for work overseeing Atlantic City. And she touted settlement of litigation between Atlantic County and Atlantic City over the state’s Payment in Lieu of Taxes bill for casinos.

She said state officials would look at the next round of Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants from the federal government that have long underwritten firefighters in Atlantic City. The state declined to apply for the grant this year, over the objections of the city and public safety unions. Oliver said the “math” of the grant formulas did not make sense for the city.

Gilliam touted more than a billion dollars in new investment coming in to the city, including the two new casinos, both of which will hire 3,000 people, two new residential developments to open soon, new investment by millennials along a tough stretch of Tennessee Avenue, and a newly built extension of the Boardwalk, the new Observation Wheel on Steel Pier, and improved lighting throughout the city.

The Rev. Jon Thomas of the Parish of St. Monica said that the optimism was sincerely felt in town, but that he was mindful of the needs of the residents in a town with 30 percent poverty rate.

“I see it in our pews, around our churches,” he said. “People asking for money as people are leaving the church.”

He said both new casinos, South Jersey Gas, which is relocating to a new high-rise, and Stockton had all already reached out to the local community. “Will there be a ripple effect on the residents and local people? We hope so.”