Atlantic City Lagging Behind Christie Plan

More than half way through a five-year push to revitalize Atlantic City outlined by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the resort has seen little growth in two major areas—convention business and increased airport traffic. An analysis by the Press of Atlantic City shows that both remain a key factor if the city is going to reverse its declining fortunes.

Nearly three years after Governor Chris Christie called for a five-year push to revitalize Atlantic City, the resort has seen little, if any, improvement in the key areas of transportation and attracting convention business.

Both areas were marked as vital to reversing the city’s declining fortunes. In 2010, the Governor’s Advisory Commission report on New Jersey Gaming, Sports and Entertainment—also known as the Hanson Report—called for increases in both convention business for the city and air traffic at nearby Atlantic City International Airport to serve conventions.

Instead, an analysis by the local Press of Atlantic City has found that not only has convention business not increased, it’s going backwards.

The Atlantic City Convention Center booked 91 conventions, trade shows and public shows in 2013, down 15 percent from the 107 booked in 2010 the Press reported.

Though there has been a modest increase in the total number of people who attended the events—up about 4 percent since 2010—it’s a far cry from the yearly 30 percent increase called for by the Hanson Report.

Casino Reinvestment Development Authority Executive Director John Palmieri blamed the slow growth on the bad economy, which has caused many groups to cut back on conventions, and also the overall hit the region took after Hurricane Sandy.

“I don’t know where they got the number,” Palmieri said of the Hanson Report. “That might have been a goal that might not have been based on any sound analysis of opportunity.”

Hand in hand with the problem, however, is the slow growth of Atlantic City International Airport in nearby Galloway Township. Direct air links to the resort are seen as vital to attracting conventions. Yet ACI currently has just one carrier serving primarily to fly local residents to vacation spots in Florida, not conventioneers to Atlantic City.

“That’s what we’re missing. You go to Las Vegas for a convention. You land at the airport, and you’re right there,” said NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney to the Press. “We need that badly for Atlantic City.”

The airport has received a boost, however, as United Airlines will begin flights to Atlantic City from its Chicago and Houston hubs beginning April 1. The flights were seen as a major coup for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which now operates the airport.

But United isn’t exactly diving head first into the market. It will offer only one flight per day from both Chicago and Houston using small, 50-passenger jets. Many analysts say it won’t be enough.

“They have to have a long-range view of what you need to do to build traffic. One or two flights a week or one flight a day doesn’t do that,” said Thomas D. Carver, a former executive director of CRDA to the Press.

The convention push was also slowed as the agencies that were responsible for attracting convention business were merged. Christie felt the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Bureau—which had overseen conventions—was ineffective and merged it with CRDA. That merger, however, plagued by governmental red tape, has taken almost two years.

With the merger now done, Palmieri of CRDA says the city can make a real run at attracting new conventions by creating a new not-for-profit entity charged with improving sales. The entity will likely take on the former ACCVA sales force, as well as make additional hires, the Press reports.

A new entity would be less hampered by state laws—such as bidding laws and travel restrictions—faced by a state agency such as CRDA, Palmieri said.

 “It’s what all successful convention center jurisdictions do, and it’s about time that we do it here,” Palmieri told the Press. “They can be more aggressive and innovative in executing plans for the vision and the enterprise within the city. Yet again, it’s a process that takes time, and discussions to create the nonprofit did not begin until recently.”

CRDA has also signed a new deal to allow Global Spectrum to operate the city’s convention center. The contract awarded to the Philadelphia-based company is the first change in management at the facility since it opened in 1997.

The Atlantic City Alliance—a marketing agency funded by the city’s casinos—has plans to boost convention business with $1 million in incentives in place each year to attract new conventions. The subsidy reportedly lured three conventions to Atlantic City in 2013.

Through it all, however, is another recommendation by the Hanson Report, which charges that the city must continue to expand it attractions—especially non-gaming attractions—to get more people interested in  visiting the city in the first place. That alone would increase conventions and air traffic, the report said.