Photo: Courtesy of Mark Faris
This is a big year for Atlantic City.On February 1, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority adopted the much-awaited Atlantic City tourism district master plan. It will seek to revitalize the city’s struggling tourism centre, which runs east to west along the boardwalk and the beach and north to south along Michigan Avenue to the Convention centre.
In recent years, casinos have suffered from increased regional competition, and a lack of non-gaming investment has left much to be desired in the city’s street-level experience, according to the master plan.
The plan (find it online) was developed by Jones Lang LaSalle, the real estate services firm, which sought extensive input from the city’s many stakeholders–including residents, property owners, the casino industry, visitors, workers, and city representatives.
We spoke with Paul Mas, managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle, about the process behind the plan, how he envisions it will be carried out, and what he thinks is held in store for Atlantic City.
Below is our conversation, which has been edited for clarity:
Business Insider: People are saying that the stakes are pretty high this year for Atlantic City. Do you feel like this could be the beginning of a turnaround for the city?
Paul Mas: I think it’s more of a continuation of the revitalization that started back in the late seventies. A lot of the other places we deal with don’t necessarily have the kind of assets that Atlantic City has. Besides the natural assets–the beach and the ocean and the boardwalk–which National Geographic ranks as the number one boardwalk in the United States, it has the gaming industry. Even with the downturn, it’s still an industry of over $3 billion dollars, and it’s not going away.
BI: But do you think that it’s a lopsided sort of ratio between the casinos and other reasons for visiting the city?
PM: The stakeholders have said that they want Atlantic City to be a resort that has gaming, as opposed to a gaming resort. And that was the primary focus of the master plan, which was to try to approach it with the thought of encuraging non-gaming activites, to add a broader range of reasons to come to Atlantic City.
BI: Can you elaborate on some of those non-gaming activities?
PM: Basically, we were asked to come up with near-term, mid-term, and long-term recommendations. And they aren’t necessarily prescriptive. What we’ve recommended doesn’t have to be what happens. Perhaps other developers have better ideas, but the recommendations are meant to prompt the best possible outcomes. The near-term ones are the most challenging because our clients want to show results as quickly as possible. So after talking with or hearing from over 2,000 stakeholders to really make sure we understood the local market as best as we could, we confirmed what we thought was the best place to start, which was at the boardwalk.
We recommended that they consider hiring a private company to do programming of the boardwalk. This is the way it’s done in Virginia Beach, for example. We suggested putting interim uses on large tracts of land, like turf fields or skateboard parks: activities that would bring a really solid demographic to the boardwalk.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
BI: And you feel that it’s not that way right now?
PM: Well, what we’re trying to deal with is the perception issue. I think there’s a whole kind of demographic that just has a perception of Atlantic City that it’s not a cool place. And just getting people down there to see it and really experience it in a positive way would go a long way to attract what any resort needs: fresh money.
BI: So were there any sorts of advertising campaigns that were part of your plan that would change the perception of Atlantic City?
PM: It’s not part of our project, but the casinos have formed an association and a portion of gaming revenues is dedicated to the marketing of the city as opposed to the marketing of individual property. That’s a first, and it’ll be a very significant marketing budget [around $30 million annually, according to Atlantic City Weekly].
BI: How many people were a part of the team at Jones Lang LaSalle that put this plan together?
PM: Our team consisted of four firms–we were the prime firm. We partnered with a very well-known architectural firm from the West coast called Jerde. Their office is on the boardwalk. We brought in a local civil engineer called Birdsall and a local New Jersey law firm, Hill Wallack. In order to do the job, we needed to have a number of disciplines that could work cohesively.
BI: And is there anything that you personally are most excited about in the project?
PM: The thing I’m most excited about is that it had the outcome that we really strived to achieve. We did a lot of outreach to the community and to the stakeholders and at the end of the day in those kinds of projects, you not only want a happy client, but you want to have a relatively happy community of stakeholders. And that’s what happened.
BI: You feel like there’s no ill will in the wake of this plan?
PM: Well, there are differences of opinion, but there are two things I find doing these kinds of projects: Number one, it’s important if you can take the time to listen to the stakeholders and vice versa. The the second thing is there’s generally a silent majority that’s just busy working or taking care of their families or trying to get ahead. We had a website that I think helped us tap into that group.
Photo: Flickr via shinya
Another thing that we really learned along the way is that people care a great deal for Atlantic City. The kind of input we were getting was very thoughtful. When we approach these things, we acknowledge that we’re outsiders. But especially in stress situations, an outsider’s point of view is sometimes really good. So I think we partnered well with all the stakeholders; we made a good team.BI: Do you think now that you’re out of the picture that it’ll stay as civil as you say it was?
PM: I hope so. I think everybody realises that they’re all eating from the same table now. There are all kinds of competitive undercurrents that go on in the market, because the casinos compete with eachother and you’ve got the community interests. Our observation is that they realise they need to come together, and I believe that’ll happen.
BI: Is there anything you want to add on top of everything you’ve already said?
PM: Besides the beach and the boardwalk, you’ve got an authentic fishing village called Gardner’s Basin, which is generally recognised as a gem. You have Bader Field, which has been signed up for four more outdoor music fests this year. In fact, they just announced one with Metallica. That facility is a great asset: it’s surrounded by water, it’s got the skyline of Atlantic City in the background. And arguably, that’s interim use; one day it’ll be devloped, but now it’s being utilized and yet another attraction, another reason to come down to Atlantic City.
There are all sorts of other assets there that are a little more subtle, like all the water activities–fishing, kayaking, surfing, volleyball–there’s a lot going on there that doesn’t really get recognised. If you just think about some more or less urban environments you’ve been in, a lot of them don’t have that kind of base to build from.
BI: So was your intention when you came in just to bring out the inner potential of Atlantic City, as opposed to imposing another vision of the city on top of the one that already existed?
PM: You said it exactly right, we wanted to accentuate its real strengths and assets and try to activate the streets. You want to have more activities on the streets, whether it’s for the tourists or for the people who live and work there.
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