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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Atlantic City mayor has a mess on his hands

15 September 2014

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Don Guardian won election as mayor of this seaside city last year by telling voters that fixing a government budget crisis requires a three-year-to-four-year plan.

He didn’t count on a rash of casino closings on the Boardwalk before the ink was dry on his mayoral business cards.

Guardian said the timetable has been dramatically moved up.

“We have to put something on the plate by January,” said Guardian, 60, a Republican who took office nine months ago after defeating incumbent Democratic Mayor Lorenzo Langford.

The bankrupt Atlantic Club closed less than month after Guardian moved into his seventh-floor office at City Hall — which offers scenic views of the Boardwalk casinos and looks north toward Atlantic City’s historic Absecon Lighthouse.

The Showboat and Revel closed Labor Day weekend.

On Tuesday, Trump Plaza will cease operations, leaving the city with eight casinos. This week, the owner of Trump Plaza threatened to close the Trump Taj Mahal.

“We thought we might lose a couple of casinos,” Guardian said. “We didn’t know it would happen so quickly.”

Guardian said the days of Atlantic City “depending on the casinos to provide all the (city’s) jobs and taxes” have long since passed. A business diversification process needs to begin sooner rather than later.

The mayor took part in a two-and-a-half-hour summit this week, led by Gov. Chris Christie, to discuss Atlantic City’s future.

“We have to transition into more than just casinos, but we also have to address the high cost of government,” Guardian said.

“There is no question we need to lower the cost of government in Atlantic City,” he said. “That’s an understatement.”

He’s already trimmed $12.5 million to try to balance this year’s budget. The state has also sent $20 million to help balance the books.

However, the casino closings will reduce property tax collections this year.

“We’ve had some good news this year, but with the closings, the good news doesn’t add up,” Guardian said.

He also plans to help casinos by removing burdensome fees that have outlasted their usefulness.

Since taking office, Guardian has won praise from tourism and gaming leaders for exploring new ways to grow the city beyond a gaming destination.

New to elected office, Guardian spent more than two decades in business, including executive roles with the Boy Scouts of America in New Jersey, at the Claridge Hotel, and with the Atlantic City Special Improvement District.

Christie’s summit was held at the offices of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, where about 50 protesters lined South Pennsylvania Avenue, demanding that the burden of funding government services not be shifted to city residents who have seen their tax burden more than double in the past eight years.

Guardian walked to the meeting from City Hall, stopping for 20 minutes to talk with the protesters, who included some of the 8,000 casino workers who recently lost jobs.

“The mayor has been great and he’s done more than anyone could ask,” said Unite Here Local 54 President Robert McDevitt, whose represents many of the displaced casino workers.

Guardian pointed to several small efforts already underway: A Bass Pro Shops is scheduled to open in the center of The Walk outlet shopping center next year, as is an indoor marketplace near Bally’s Atlantic City. The Tropicana Atlantic City plans to expand non-gaming offerings and will remodel hotel rooms. Harrah’s Atlantic City is adding more than 100,000 square-feet of convention space.

Guardian said a renewed effort to market Atlantic City as a convention and meeting destination will help fill businesses mid-week. He also hopes the closed hotels will follow the model set by the Claridge, which became a non-gaming hotel with re-purposed public space.

He also sees something of a silver lining in the recent spate of hotel closings: Trump Plaza could be demolished, allowing The Walk and the Boardwalk to connect, possibly with a new outdoor concert venue.

But his biggest goal is to diversify the city’s economy so that 25 percent of the workforce would “have nothing to do with tourism.”

That might take a decade to complete.

“We would love to attract research and technology, and develop clean industries,” Guardian said. “We need to develop as a true city, and not just a beach town.”