The 10 Key Questions for Atlantic City in 2017

Here are the most important questions as the beleaguered tourist enclave moves forward into the new year.

Atlantic City mayor Don Guardian on the day the Senate passed a 100-day reprieve from a state takeover. The state later rejected the city's recovery plan and moved to let the state Local Finance Board take over.
Atlantic City mayor Don Guardian on the day the N.J. State Senate passed a 100-day reprieve from a state takeover. The state later rejected the city’s recovery plan and moved to let the state Local Finance Board take over. JT Aregood for Observer

2016 was a rocky year for New Jersey’s gambling capitol, to say the least—Atlantic City scrambled to pay off enough of its debts to stay solvent and failed to persuade the administration of Governor Chris Christie’s against a state takeover of its finances. But 2017 is poised to be better, if not smooth sailing. 

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Here are the most important questions as the beleaguered tourist enclave moves forward into the new year.

1)What will a new governor do about the takeover?

Christie made the takeover of Atlantic City one of his last stands this year, but all the feuding with city officials and alliances with powerful Democrats could turn out to be a wash when he is term-limited out in 2018. Phil Murphy, the odds-on favorite for the nomination in a 2017 gubernatorial race many have already called for the Democrats, has said he would end the takeover if he takes office.

2) Who will be mayor?

Mayor Don Guardian approached folk hero status among his constituency with his fiery rhetoric and impassioned testimony against the takeover, but next year’s mayoral race will put his reputation to the test. The unlikely white, gay Republican mayor of the heavily black and Democratic resort town will go up against either City Council President Marty Small or his rival for the Democratic nomination, City Councilman Frank Gilliam.

3) What will become of the city’s water authority?

Atlantic City’s Municipal Utilities Authority was arguably the centerpiece of the takeover negotiations, with many crying foul after the Press of Atlantic City reported that Democratic boss George Norcross had been present at a meeting with Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney, County Executive Dennis Levinson and State Senator Jim Whelan to hash out the details of the takeover bill. New Jersey American Water, a firm for whom Norcross’s brother Philip has lobbied in the past, stands to take over if the county declines and the state orders the city to privatize.

4) How will gambling change in NJ?

Internet gambling, one of the few growing niches in the state’s once-booming gaming economy, could be up for a vote in congress this year. Federal law also appears to be tilting toward allowing sports betting outside of New Jersey and three other states, and slot machines could be coming to New Jersey race tracks—North Jersey casinos may have gone down in 2016, but there are still plenty of wild cards for Atlantic City’s declining share of gaming revenue on the east coast.

5) Can the city cut an additional $20 million from its budget?

Police salaries and staffing cuts appear to be first on the chopping block as the city attempts to further reduce costs. According to an email from a police union chief obtained by the Press, the state is seeking pay cuts for all department staff and will be asking workers to shoulder more of the the cost of health care.

6) Will developers lose patience?

Back in September developer Glenn Straub, who is spearheading the reopening and rebranding of the Revel Casino, walked out of a meeting with Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s land use board when his proposed footprint for the new facilities around the shuttered Revel property were subject to further scrutiny over landscaping. With the city’s forbidding infrastructure of public-private partnerships, authorities and entrenched contracts between remaining casinos, the red tape is unlikely to decrease in 2017.

7) Will Carl Icahn reopen the Taj Mahal?

The Taj joined the ranks of Atlantic City casinos driven out of business this year when billionaire owner Carl Icahn closed it following a labor dispute with workers over health and pension benefits. Though a sale is the most likely option, casino worker union Unite HERE 54 has pledged to renew the strike if Icahn moves to reopen the casino as a non-union facility.

8) Will Jim Whelan run again?

The rumor around the State House has been that State Senator and one-time Atlantic City mayor Jim Whelan is considering retirement. That vacancy would likely lead to fierce competition between his Democratic heir apparent Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo and his Republican district-mate Chris Brown, a popular legislator who upped his public profile with his vocal opposition to Christie on the takeover and the unsuccessful referendum to allow North Jersey casinos.

9) Revel’s rebranding: will the second time be the charm?

The Revel, one of the city and the state’s most expensive failures in a generation, plans to reopen in spring 2017 as the “Ten” resort. Whether the new facilities can do their part to diversify the city’s economy by bringing in non-gambling revenue remains to be seen, if Straub doesn’t lose patience first.

10) Can the state’s monitor curry favor with the city?

Christie’s appointee to lead the state takeover effort, former U.S. Senator Jeff Chiesa, started off on the wrong foot by leaving it to the press to uncovered his sizable hourly rate: $400 an hour to be paid for out of taxpayer coffers. Though the takeover could be a moot point by 2018, Chiesa will be called upon to demonstrate good faith and transparency as the unelected arbiter of the city’s finances.

The 10 Key Questions for Atlantic City in 2017