There was a time when Atlantic City, NJ ruled the world. Let the comeback begin.

(Absecon Island, NJ) –With his shocking win in last year’s election, Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian emerged as one of the most intriguing figures in the New Jersey political constellation.  But this is not entirely a political story.  Mostly it’s about a renaissance in Atlantic City that seems increasingly self-evident.  

This article was slated to run first-of-the-month, but let’s face it, if anyone penned something about Atlantic City’s rebirth on (or around) April 1st, y’all would think it was a joke.  And why not?  How many times have you heard Atlantic City is “back,” and that there’s a renaissance just around the corner?  At least gazillion?  Me too.  (Oh and speaking of gazillion, that’s how much money the state’s pumped in to AC to prop up one industry at the expense of … basically everything else.)

We’ve seen where that leads.  Hopefully those days are over. 

“If I don’t wow you, I’ll be disappointed!”

Naturally we’re skeptical hearing lofty promises from the goverment, but there’s a mounting pile of evidence that suggests Atlantic City’s future does indeed look brighter.  To find proof, I hopped on the AC Expressway to spend the day with Mayor Guardian and his staff.  We did an interview, a trip to church, and a groundbreaking ceremony for a major beach-front development project.  There was a radio call-in show too.  Plenty of opportunities to the take the temperature of the community.  

It was immediately clear the new Mayor’s a popular guy.  The phone rang constantly with folks requesting appearances at this/that event in town.  Maybe the novelty hasn’t worn off. Or maybe — just maybe — the new Mayor is poised to help Atlantic City deliver on its immense promise.  

Referring to Atlantic City’s (Boardwalk Empire-era) halcyon days, Guardian seems realistic about the challenges ahead.  “It’s time to take the Boardwalk to the next level, but it’s tougher to ‘WOW’ people in 2014,” he said. “We know that.  Were trying to keep the gaming that’s here healthy … but casinos aren’t the answer for everything.” 

Or everyone for that matter.  The good news is there’s a lot happening in Atlantic City and none of it necessarily involves gambling.  The Miss America Pageant’s back in town after an eight-year absence. Fabulous. 

Even more fabulous was the pageant anecdote the Mayor shared.  Turns out, the venerable, immensely popular “Show Us Your Shoes Parade” — which now airs on national TV — was once a provincial event where the town’s LGBT community playfully taunted the contestants for donning slippers during the parade instead of their glamorous but ridiculously uncomfortable high heels.  

Cries of “Show us your shoes!!” showered down on the real queens (courtesy of the drag queens who’d never be caught dead without their pumps.)
 

Note to Asbury park: Up your game or lose your shirt.

Last weekend highlights Atlantic City’s newly diverse (read: non-casino) offerings: a beer-fest drew 22,000 visitors AND the Garden State Film Fest (which pulled in another 10k.)   Add to the mix a marathon (+ half-marathon) and you’re looking at a helluva a fun party.  

The film-festival debuted in AC this year after a long run in Asbury Park.  The event simply “outgrew Asbury Park,” Guardian said. “We have the infrastructure.”  The tacit message: Asbury Park doesn’t have the infrastructure.  

Another big-dollar event fleeing Asbury for AC is Sandblast Weekend in July.   For the uninitiated, Sandblast’s the biggest gay beach party in the mid-Atlantic where 4,000 (mostly) gay 1%’ers throw money around like there’s no tomorrow.  I’m not being hyperbolic.  Event producer Brad Hurtado explained the decision to leave AP for AC:

“The popularity of our weekend of events has caused us to outgrow Asbury Park.  Atlantic City with its many hotels, attractions, and party venues was a natural choice, and this move allows us to continue our original mission to introduce our LGBT friends from cities along the east coast to the wonders of the Jersey Shore. Atlantic City’s airport opens the weekend event to an entirely new audience from New England to Florida.”

If a Big Gay Beach Party’s not your thing, there’s a free Blake Shelton concert later that week, slated to draw over 100,000 music fans to town.  You could even do both.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  

Also hot off the press: a $5m package to woo new airlines to supplement United’s existing direct service between Atlantic City International Airport  and Houston and Chicago.   “A major national airline and new destinations should be added and announced soon!” Guardian said.

On the drawing board: a new mural arts program, a farmer’s market (“like Reading Terminal Market in Philly,” says Guardian) and new sidewalks on the main drag.  There’s even talk to open an 8-acre campus of Richard Stockton College in town.  

How awesome would that be?  

AM Talk Radio

After our chat, Mayor Guardian called into a political radio show on AM1440, a station that’s more Limbaugh than NPR.   If this guy Guardian’s not The Real Deal, the phone-in guests would surely call him out.  Right?  The callers indeed leaned conservative and sounded very opinionated…but no fire and brimstone, not a hint of Tea Party wackadoodle’ry.  Just nice, enthusiastic callers with gentle suggestions (“take awake city council’s cars” and “keep doing what you’re doing!”) and/or hearty congratulations on Guardian’s upset defeat of the incumbent, Democrat Lorenzo Langford. 

Callers gave the Mayor ample space to trash-talk his predecessor, Lorenzo Langford, who was by most accounts an irredeemable public servant.  (Just take a peek at Langford’s outgoing screed and judge for yourself.)  Guardian took the high road, “I was elected to fix these problems.  That’s it.”

Guardian did allow this much: “previously the city was fighting with everybody. The Governor, the County Executive, the casinos.”  

That’s how Langford rolled and that’s what set the tone for an overwhelmingly Democratic, minority town like Atlantic City would elect a gay, white Republican like Don Guardian to lead them. And yes, there are gay Republicans.

Holy Holy Thursday, Batman

After the radio show it was off to Church at St. Nick’s for Holy Thursday service to celebrate the Last Supper.  It was far-and-away the most diverse Catholic Mass I’d even attended.  Let’s be honest: diversity isn’t some feel-good exercise for the bleeding-heart liberals out there.  It’s math.  And in a place like Atlantic City, NJ (38% black, 30% Latino, 16% Asian) diversity is destiny if you wanna be mayor.  Don Guardian gets that. it’s a pity more of his fellow Republicans don’t get that. 

“The National Republican Party left me.  I’m still the same sensible guy I always ways,” Guardian said, quickly adding, “When we polled, the only dirty thing people in Atlantic City said about me was I’m a Republican!”

Shovel-Ready

The last stop of the day was a groundbreaking.  A big, splashy $4,000,000 ground-breaking to be precise.  

NBC40:  “Shovels sunk into the dirt Thursday afternoon for the groundbreaking of a brand new multi-million dollar Atlantic City Boardwalk retail space.  Over the next year, 2.5 acre property in between Florida Avenue and Boardwalk Hall’s West Hall will be transformed into approximately 10 brand new retail stores and national restaurants.”

“This is probably one of the busiest spots on the boardwalk – just a lot of foot traffic going by,” explained project investor Michael Markman.  

Eventually the Tropicana Hotel is opening up 3 blocks of their seaside façade — currently one of the least aesthetically-pleasing stretches of the Boardwalk — and transforming from a concrete box to something “much more like Miami.”  Now the site remains slightly unkempt and neglected.  And brimming with promise, an apt metaphor for the city itself.

The immediate fate of Atlantic City and its new Mayor Don Guardian is for now uncertain and inextricably linked.  Expectations are really high, a point laid bare watching the Mayor’s various encounters with constituents throughout the day.  

But optimism in Atlantic City is on the rise too.  And that was just as obvious.         

           ___ ___ ___ ___ 

Jersey-Fresh Jay Lassiter pioneered New Jersey’s new media landscape as the first credentialed State House blogger in the nation.  More recently he was a principal activist and lobbyist for NJ’s Medical Marijuana and Marriage Equality Laws.  By dint of geography, Jay’s an ardent and unapologetic booster for (nearly) all things South Jersey. You can follow him on Twitter @Jay_Lass

There was a time when Atlantic City, NJ ruled the world.  Let the comeback begin.