ATLANTIC CITY - Is Do AC done?
The Atlantic City Alliance - the $30 million-a-year, casino funded, legislatively mandated marketing organization - appears headed for extinction.
The alliance board, composed solely of casino executives, voted unanimously this week to ask the New Jersey Legislature to do away with the Do AC group.
"I don't think it's a failure," said board chairman Tom Ballance, president and chief operating officer of the Borgata. "I think it's a casualty of these incredibly difficult times. I wish it weren't happening. We have to put a tourniquet on the city to keep it afloat."
The eight surviving casinos say they need the money to offset proposed changes in the tax structure and to offset the high cost of doing business in flailing Atlantic City. But state and city officials also have their eye on the alliance's money.
The Do AC branding machine, meanwhile, continued spreading its positive vibe in this crisis-gripped town even as the sharks circled its $30 million chum. (@visitac: "Let's play #whatsforlunch.")
The alliance, formed in 2011, cast a wide branding and marketing net, with some efforts more successful than others. It created the ubiquitous Do AC brand, ran party buses from Philadelphia, and sponsored wildly successful free beach concerts, all against the din of unrelenting bad news, but it spent millions on a sophisticated Art Park that was critically acclaimed, locally mocked - "Enough with the art" - and rarely populated.
Now it seems "enough with the ACA" is the rallying call.
"Individually, we're over it," said Tom Pohlman, general manager of the Golden Nugget casino in the marina district and one of five members who voted Wednesday. "As a group, as we look at the cost structure, we have to bring it down. We voted that we abolish the Atlantic City Alliance, do away with it."
A sixth board member, representing the teetering Trump Entertainment, did not participate in the vote.
State officials have proposed diverting at least a portion of the money to other uses.
At Gov. Christie's second summit in Atlantic City this week, Jon Hanson, the governor's point man, spoke of reducing the alliance's budget to $15 million, to be used to promote events on the Boardwalk. Hanson is chairman of the Governor's Advisory Commission on New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment.
But Hanson's report said the ACA's "return on investment is below expectations and [it] does little to affect urgent structural needs of the city." It called for $10 million of the ACA budget to fund a new development corporation, ACDevCo., modeled after a similar entity in New Brunswick.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) was more cryptic in his plan, saying the ACA "must be evaluated to determine whether it is fulfilling its original purpose."
On Wednesday, Sweeney said the various pools of money were all up for grabs. "There's a lot of different pots that we're working with," he said.
One pot comes from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Both state proposals call for diverting $25 million to $30 million in Investment Alternative Tax funds to help Atlantic City pay off its debt and ease crippling property taxes.
Ballance said the casinos could no longer afford the luxury of the alliance under new proposals to stabilize Atlantic City's finances.
Those proposals include Sweeney's suggested $150 million PILOT - payment in lieu of taxes - that casinos would be required to pay each year, and the diversion of the CRDA money, funds the casinos have previously been able to draw from to apply to projects at their properties.
"As much as we would like to keep the ACA, we can't afford it," Ballance said. "We do see value in it, but times are different than when we created it."
Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian said he, too, supported doing away with the alliance but thought its budget should be diverted to the city.
"I think they did a great job," Guardian said. "It's just when you come down to the cost of property tax, do you put $30 million toward [marketing] or toward property relief?"
The alliance was established as part of a series of legislative mandates to reinvigorate Atlantic City. The $30 million collective casino assessment came from a pot of money that previously went to racetracks. The casinos argued then that the city had never properly marketed itself, as Las Vegas has done for years.
But marketing campaigns such as Do AC, and a previous casualty, "Pure Michigan," are often the first cut in times of financial stress.
Jeff Guaracino, the alliance's spokesman, referred all questions to Ballance.
The group has always functioned in the vortex of Atlantic City's spectacularly bad developments and headlines. Not long after the group's inception, as it launched the Do AC brand, two Canadian tourists were killed in the center of the city, prompting one newspaper to declare the resort a "Tourist Deathtrap."
Later, it had to deal with Hurricane Sandy and the widespread falsehood that the entire Boardwalk had been destroyed. It put volleyball courts between two casinos that then closed. More recently, it sought to counter relentless news of casino closings and stories declaring the city's demise.
Pohlman, of the Golden Nugget, said his property in the city's Marina district, in particular, got no benefit from the alliance's efforts, which focused on the Boardwalk. "As individual properties, we all do enough to bring customers into the city," he said.
As for the lonely Art Park, curated by the acclaimed Lance Fung at the former site of the Sands casino at Indiana Avenue, it is as desolate as ever. Robert Barry's word art (BELIEVE, REAL, INSPIRE) still lights up at night. But the Kiki Smith sculpture of a nude woman holding a deer, surrounded by a bloodred garden - which so aggravated critics who thought that the entire project was a ridiculous waste of money - is no longer there; Smith reclaimed it on schedule.