In AC, No Takers (Yet) for Former Airport

For years, Atlantic City’s Bader Field, one of the largest plots of vacant land on the eastern seaboard, has been idle. Proposals for its use have come and gone, including a casino plan that was killed first by the state, and then by the Great Recession. What’s next for the former airport?

In AC, No Takers (Yet) for Former Airport

In 2011 and 2012, Atlantic City’s Bader Field seemed to have found its calling. In those years, the 150-acre site of a former municipal airport hosted numerous concerts and music festivals featuring popular bands such as Phish, the Dave Matthews Band and Flaming Lips.

But summer concerts don’t constitute meaningful development in an island resort. Since the historic airport ceased operations in 2006, proposals for its use have come and gone: casinos, amusement parks, housing and the latest idea: a Formula One style race course—complete with housing.

Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. says the city will soon announce a major development plan for Bader Field, with a 99-year lease, according to the Press of Atlantic City. But mum’s the word on further details. “At this time, there are no concrete details to publicly share on the development of Bader Field,” said Atlantic City spokeswoman Rebekah Mena.

Could it be the track proposal? Mum’s the word on that score too. Lawyer Dan Gallagher, who represents the track people, didn’t return repeated calls for comment.

Say what you will about the worthiness of any of these proposals, the common thread is that they never seem to get to first base (an apt metaphor, as one company pitched a “world-class athletic destination focused on sports, competition, and education”). The jury is still out on the racecourse proposal, of course, but if history is any indicator, don’t expect anyone to start their engines anytime soon.

The state Local Finance Board has authority over any development at Bader Field and according to spokeswoman Lisa Ryan, the agency has not received any recent inquiries. So what’s up?

Lots of Interest, No Action

That the airport has been vacant for 15 years may come as a surprise—after all, this is the largest piece of unencumbered land inside a world-famous shore resort. On paper, it sounds like a developer’s dream. Find another island along the Jersey Shore where that land wouldn’t be snapped up.

James W. Hughes, professor of urban planning and policy development at Rutgers University of New Jersey, says developable shore property isn’t enough to make the parcel attractive in today’s market. Just look at various empty suburban office buildings throughout the state, like the former Merck & Co. headquarters in Hunterdon County.

“It was among the finest office buildings,” Hughes said, “but there’s no market for that type of building in that specific location, so it has no value.”

Bader Field may lack a viable economic market, he added. “There’s a surplus of casinos and water parks in the state. And you don’t need more townhouses and condos.”

That said, Bader Field still has significant potential, according to Oliver Cooke, associate professor of economics at New Jersey’s Stockton University. “In my mind, an important question is whether a development should add to Atlantic City’s existing tourism/hospitality portfolio or be used to incubate entirely new non-leisure and hospitality opportunities,” he said.

Initially, no developers bit because of a very high asking price, noted Michael Busler, professor of finance at Stockton. Once the price was reduced somewhat, a casino developer—Penn National Gaming—offered $800 million to build several casinos there. But lawmakers declined the proposal, demanding a competitive bidding process. And by that time—2008—the casino market had begun to collapse. Now the price has been reduced again, significantly, but nothing is happening.

“A developer must answer what to build on the site that the market will react favorably to,” Busler said. Atlantic City hasn’t been able to attract large scale non-casino development, he said. The proposed water park at Showboat is non-gaming, but still part of the leisure and hospitality sector.

Another element—a major one, it turns out—is how the post-pandemic economy will shake out and what that means for Bader Field, Hughes said.

A report released by the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton said the Covid-19 pandemic proved more damaging to the leisure and hospitality industry than the Great Recession between 2007 and 2009.

Educated Guesses Include eCommerce

Fast forward to the most recent global crisis, in 2020, and similar factors are in play. In 2020, the greater Atlantic City metropolitan area had the third largest employment decline in the nation, at almost 16 percent, and the leisure and hospitality sector saw an almost 35 percent decline in employment. During the pandemic, casino brick-and-mortar win declined by almost 44 percent, as compared with 13 percent in 2009, though casinos were able to recoup some revenue through online and internet gaming.

Cooke, who is also editor of the South Jersey Economic Report, said, “A key question that will loom over the regional economy as the national and regional recoveries play out over the remainder of 2021 and into 2022 is whether Atlantic City casino industry managers elect to return their physical properties’ personnel levels to pre-pandemic benchmarks or redirect resources to higher profit margin revenue streams, which require far fewer brick-and-mortar workers.”

If the national recovery “continues to gather steam” throughout 2021, it would be “especially welcome news for the southern New Jersey regional economy,” Cooke said.

One area of economic growth is the demand for ecommerce, Hughes said. In four years, ecommerce could account for 25 percent of all retail, which doesn’t bode well for bricks-and-mortar stores. Fulfillment centers are in hypergrowth, he said. Could that provide an option for Bader Field?

Probably not, Hughes said. “They’re oriented more towards the New York and Philadelphia corridors, with easier access to the ports. You see them popping up along I-295 and the New Jersey Turnpike.”

Busler ventured an educated guess on Bader Field’s future. “It will probably end up with a mix of residential and commercial. The residential can take advantage of the views and the waterfront living. As for commercial, what’s really needed is an attraction that’s unique, one that vacationers will feel like they `must see.’ That will be difficult to pull off.”

Hughes said time will tell. “Short-term gains can cost you in the long term,” he said. “I’d suggest you hold onto the land if there’s no slam dunk. Wait until you see what the new economy is like.”

One thing is certain: no new casino will ever be built at Bader Field. But the parcel did prove useful in February, when the city opened it up—at $10 a carload—for spectators to see the implosion of Trump Plaza.

Articles by Author: Bill Sokolic

Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.