ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey officials say a wide-ranging effort to improve Atlantic City is starting to pay off, from new private investment in non-casino attractions to a $20 million advertising campaign that's beginning to change negative perceptions about the seaside gambling resort.
Speakers at an Assembly panel hearing Wednesday said the state's efforts to improve public safety, cleanliness and economic development in Atlantic City are bearing fruit more than a year after Gov. Chris Christie's administration adopted a plan to rescue the struggling resort.
"Our key audience — fun seekers — is starting to associate Atlantic City with more amenities," said Jeff Guaracino, chief strategy officer with the Atlantic City Alliance, the casino-funded marketing arm of the resort. Three months after the "Do AC" advertising campaign was launched, research showed audiences in New York and Baltimore had better perceptions of Atlantic City, viewing it as "less run-down" and more appealing as a vacation site, he said.
John Palmieri, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, cited new private investment like the $35 million Margaritaville development at Resorts Casino Hotel, and a new Bass Pro Shops outlet approved Tuesday for the city's shopping district. The agency recently opened a new parking garage in the mall area, spent several million dollars on equipment for a light and sound show at Boardwalk Hall, and plans to lease vacant lots for community arts projects.
Tourism district employees, in their almost-visible-from-Mars neon yellow shirts and jackets, can be found throughout the Boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue areas, picking up garbage, cleaning sidewalks and giving directions to tourists.
And the region's golf courses announced a new joint marketing effort on Wednesday, aimed at competing with other, better-known golf markets.
The success or failure of these efforts will go a long way toward determining whether New Jersey eventually allows casino gambling in other parts of the state. Christie says the reforms need a few years to succeed.
Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton College, said efforts to change Atlantic City's image are in their infancy, but show promise.
"The Atlantic City Alliance is in the early phase of re-educating regional markets that Atlantic City is about much more than gaming," he said. "Ironically, the more casino gaming spreads like weeds, the more Atlantic City stands out as a unique destination because of its concentration of entertainment amenities and seaside location.
"The key strategic challenge that remains is enhancing Atlantic City's value as an entertainment destination in the dense and relatively high net worth mid-Atlantic market," Posner said. "In my opinion, continued focus on public relations, targeted advertising and image building will bear fruit."
The city still has significant challenges, including an escalating homicide rate (15 killings so far this year, surpassing the total for all of last year) and pockets of poverty in residential areas not far from the casinos.
"If we want to get people to visit, we need to continue to do all we can do to create an enjoyable experience," Palmieri said. "We've been meeting with some success in a tough environment. This has been a tough four to five years for the nation. I like to think we're well-positioned."
Atlantic City has lost 6 million annual visitors since 2006 as neighboring states add casinos.
"We need more new visitors, and our current visitors to come back more frequently," Guaracino said.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC