In 2008, Penn National Gaming offered Atlantic City $800 million to develop a casino at historic, long-vacant Bader Field, one of the nation’s earliest municipal airports, closed since 2006. The company planned to partition the 140 acres so other gaming companies could be part of the package. But the state came in and nixed any deal unless it went out for a public bid.
What would have happened had Penn National carried out the plan? Would it have built its own casino resort, even if there were no other companies in the mix? In 2008, the year a good many AC development deals went south, would the tanking economy have sunk any and all plans?
The economy improved, then soured again in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, arguably, it’s back on the mend.
But Bader Field remains much as it was in 2008: empty. Pop-up festivals, musical and otherwise, have taken place there, as well as concerts. Development proposals have come and gone.
The latest comes from DEEM Enterprises, with a multi-functional residential project revolves around… cars. The literal centerpiece of the company’s proposed plan will consist of a Formula 1-style driving course.
“Our project is far different than anyone else’s,” said Michael Binder, the M in DEEM.
The project, known as Renaissance at Bader Field is an imaginative one, for sure. If it comes to fruition, it will create jobs and tax revenue at a site that has been fallow for 15 years. There will be 423 condo units encircling the track, and another 372 apartments and 34 townhomes along Albany Avenue, many for rent. Plans down the road call for a couple of high-rise condos and eventually a brand-name hotel. There will also be 340,000 square feet of auto-centric and other retailers. Shops and restaurants will line Albany Avenue, some with housing on top.
The proposal also includes a museum and event center, an educational component and a waterfront amphitheater. “We anticipate having an array of different events focused on all things automotive, the latest sustainability technologies, documentary film making, talks, small concerts, guest appearances, and general interest,” Binder said. “These elements will coincide with the overall buildout of the site.”
These are lofty proposals. But Atlantic City is littered with lofty proposals that never left the drawing board. What makes this one different?
“I looked at the site five or six years ago,” Binder said. “I knew what it could be. The opportunity to change Atlantic City is right in front of us.”
The two E’s in DEEM, Erick Feitshans and Eric Harryman, are involved in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. The D is for Daniel Gallagher, a local lawyer.
The cost for Renaissance would come to $2.7 billion, and DEEM has the money in hand, Binder said, including “$50 million of our own money involved.”
The development would be phased in according to demand for the housing. Purchase prices would also be based on demand. The plan sets aside 20 percent of the project along Albany Avenue for affordable housing; the variety of housing sizes and mix of market-rate and affordable rentals would boost options in the Chelsea Heights neighborhood, Binder said.
The plans haven’t left gambling behind, and DEEM has a couple of ideas on that front. One has to do with creation of a mobile sportsbook at some point. “According to our gaming consultant you do not have to be on a particular casino property in order to have a sportsbook license. The ‘special license’ is called a skin which can be purchased directly from a casino. The question I’ve just asked is can more than one skin be purchased to include all casinos in Atlantic City.”
The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement confirmed that any online sports wagering entity can partner with a casino or racetrack for a skin. “But each casino and racetrack are limited to three skins total,” said Christopher Glaum, chief of investigations for the DGE.
Developers also hope to get into what many call the next big thing in gambling: esports. That could be an avenue to sports betting, too.
“Competitions that are approved for wagering can occur anywhere, provided they are approved by the division,” said DGE spokesman Leland Moore. “In-person wagering may only occur at approved casinos or racetracks, though mobile wagering can take place anywhere inside the state.”
Then there’s the 2.44-mile track. It may look like a racecourse, but it isn’t, Binder said. Residents and guests who love cars could get behind the wheel on the track. If this whole auto/residential mix seems a little odd, you haven’t heard of the Thermal Club (left) in Thermal, California. It has many of the same features planned by DEEM, including the racecourse.
“The paramount concern of the motor sport development will be safety,” Binder said. “The course will be used by highly trained residents who will have to pass rigorous safety requirements before driving the course. Additionally, the membership will be limited to individuals who are not merely auto enthusiasts but motorsport lifestyle participants. We will have availability for guests to participate but they must go through the same safety protocols.”
Binder said noise from the track would not be a problem given the design of the Renaissance at Bader Field, which would be bordered by condominiums with sound-absorbing building envelopes. Don’t forget the multi-layered landscape design beyond the condos. And the housing along Albany Avenue.
Seeing Renaissance at Bader Field go from drawing board to reality will take more than money. DEEM has to jump through several hoops to get the approvals it needs. The city and Mayor Marty Small Sr. seem to be on board, though Small’s office did not respond to a request for comment. But that’s only one part of the permit puzzle.
• The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) has to approve the plan, as Bader Field is located in Atlantic City’s Tourism District. That includes the site plan, subdivision and variances, spokeswoman Karen Martin said.
• The state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) must also pass judgement on any proposal for the site. “The DCA has oversight and reviews all contracts, meeting minutes, resolutions and ordinances that the city may approve,” Martin said.
• The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has to issue a Coastal Area Facilities Review Act permit, among others, especially since the project involves much-needed dredging of nearby channels and depositing the spoils on the site to build it up as a buffer against storms. For more than six months, the DEP has had monthly discussions with Atlantic City officials and the CRDA regarding potential use of the site as an upland confined disposal facility for material dredged from Gardner’s Basin. “The material would serve as a cap to remediate low levels of contamination and raise the level of the site for redevelopment,” DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.
The channels are “clogged with silt and impassable in many areas,” Binder said. That sludge would be mixed with debris and gravel for a sublayer. Binder expects 2.5 million cubic yards of sludge to be dredged up for the project.
For all the obstacles, Binder believes the needed approvals will come, and the city’s largest tract of vacant, prime real estate will be OK’d for development. But until DEEM has formal site control of Bader Field, the company will not make any submissions to the CRDA for use approvals.
“We’re confident they will see the merits of the project and the massive benefits to the city, county, and state,” the developer said. “It takes political will and a full understanding of the positive impact of this project on Atlantic City and coastal development in general.”