Baseball failed. Basketball failed. Football failed. Hockey failed. Atlantic City hasn’t had a good track record with sports.
Could Formula 1 racing be the exception?
Deem Enterprises wants to find out. The company has floated a $2.7 billion proposal for a mixed-use development at Bader Field, the long-vacant former municipal airport, with a 2.44-mile race course as the centerpiece. The project would also include with bayfront townhouses, condos and affordable housing, plus other amenities.
Atlantic City attorney Daniel Gallagher presented the $2.7 billion proposal to City Council, which passed a resolution on March 24 to vet the project.
“The proposal is exciting, because it represents the largest potential investment in Atlantic City in almost 10 years, since Revel,” said Jane F. Bokunewicz, of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University. “This indicates that investors are optimistic about the future of the resort. But whether Formula 1 auto racing is the best use of the space is debatable.”
If approved, the project could bring fresh development to an asset that’s failed to find its footing. Bader Field’s size—150 acres—and location—right outside downtown Atlantic City—seems a natural for a large-scale tourist attraction. In March, prior to the implosion of Trump Plaza on the Boardwalk, city officials recommended that gawkers park at Bader Field, in order to get the best view.
“Any proposal is welcome,” said Robert Ambrose, consultant, adjunct professor of hospitality management and former casino executive. But a feasibility study will have to show its value to the market place and to the local community, he said.
“Auto racing is not enough. Can the space lend itself to any wintertime activities? Can the location be a four-season location? What other mixed-use offerings are being considered to complement the car races?” Ambrose said he could envision hotels or extended-stay lodging at the city’s gateway, which offers great views of the bayfront. The hotel rooms could help Atlantic City be more competitive in the convention market.
Bokunewicz said City Council must ask the same questions: What kind of demand is there for this entertainment? How many permanent year-round jobs would result? What taxes will be paid? Will the space be flexible enough to attract festivals and concerts, as in the past?
On paper, the plan sounds good. Deem Enterprises promises to be the first development in the state to be carbon net-zero. Another part of the project would include a center to train city residents to be auto mechanics.
Gallagher told the Press of Atlantic City he has letters of intent for financing, and said the city could sell Deem the land or provide the tract in exchange for income-sharing.
Any plans to sell the property—for which the term “airport” (l.) was first coined—require state approval. Bader Field opened in 1910, and according to local lore, in 1931 hosted legendary aviators Eddie Rickenbacker, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, who came to celebrate the launch of Eastern Airlines. During World War II, a minor league baseball stadium was built on the grounds, and in 1944, the New York Yankees held spring training there, and even played several games.
“Something this big … all nine council members need to be involved in this,” said Council President George Tibbitt. “When you have this kind of money on the table, we have to at least have it properly vetted by the governor’s office and the Senate president.”
Another question is the residential component.
“Bader Field lends itself to more of a transient tourist location and not a residential footprint,” Ambrose said. “I’m not sure how any type of proposed housing model would work alongside of such an entertainment/racing model. Crowd control and noise are certainly factors for residents.” The course would rely on soundproofing materials for noise abatement, according to Gallagher.
Another concern is competition from the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, Cumberland County, less than an hour’s drive from Atlantic City. That track hosts minor NASCAR races and other racing events.
“The racing industry market is not large enough to support racetracks so close to one another,” said Brad Scott, president and COO of the Millville track. “Several racetracks in New Jersey have closed or are about to close.”
An auto racing proposal was not the first for the region.
“My recollection is that there were discussions about developing a NASCAR track in Hamilton Township in the vicinity of the former Atlantic City Race Track. They did not come to fruition,” said Atlantic County Planning Director John Peterson.
While a track failed to materialize in the county, one element present now that was not available then—or for the sports teams that failed—is sports betting.
“That does make this option more viable today,” Ambrose said. “Hosting races at Bader Field is a great Atlantic City tie-in from a marketing perspective. The casinos could also ride the tail winds with some unique promotional parallels—as well as sports betting.”
The city has been on the lookout for more diverse forms of entertainment, and certainly doesn’t plan for or need more casinos. After the Plaza implosion, AC Mayor Marty Small summed it up by saying, “We’re always going to be a casino town, don’t get that wrong. But it’s time to take a shift to make a difference from every other area near and far that now has casinos.”