Atlantic City’s New Mayor Inherits the Good and the Bad of the Last Four Years

Atlantic City voters have elected a new Mayor after four tough years for outgoing Mayor Don Guardian. Frank Gilliam Jr. (l.) will now head a resort with several new development projects underway, but still facing severe financial problems. The state also controls the city’s finances.

The newly elected mayor of Atlantic City—Democrat Frank Gilliam Jr.—said he will work with New Jersey’s new Democratic governor to end the state’s control of the city’s finances and plans to continue trying to attract non-gaming development to the city.

On the last point, he inherits projects that came to the city under outgoing Mayor Don Guardian, but also will have to face the same economic problems that Guardian had to wrestle with.

Under Guardian, the city did seem to turn a corner as it attracted development such as the new Hard Rock Casino scheduled to open in 2018 and a new satellite campus for nearby Stockton University.

Hard Rock recently unveiled a new billboard in the city touting its planned opening in summer 2018, the first bit of branding it has done in the resort. Also, South Jersey Gas Company, which will share the under construction “Gateway Project” with Stockton, held a topping-off ceremony for their new office building at a key entrance point to the city. The two projects and a number of smaller projects have the city feeling bullish about its future.

In an analysis by the Associated Press, Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said people in the region are optimistic about a coming wave of development.

“Part of Don Guardian’s greatest legacy will be the fact that he believed in and worked for a diversification of the city’s economic base, and, as mayor, Frank Gilliam certainly will be able to reap some of the credit and benefits for projects initiated in the Guardian administration,” she told the wire service. “Hopefully Mayor Gilliam will take a page from Mayor Guardian and continue the process of attracting a wide variety of businesses and enterprises to Atlantic City, which will only serve to strengthen the city and the region.”

But Gilliam also inherits problems Guardian could not solve, such as the state’s takeover of city finances and a still crushing municipal debt caused by casino tax appeals and the closing of five city casinos since Guardian took office. The city’s economy, while more diverse than it was, is still heavily dependent on casinos.

Gilliam has said his plans for the resort include an audit of its finances and he has promised to work closely with incoming Democratic Governor-elect Phil Murphy, who has promised to end the state takeover of Atlantic City.

Murphy has said he opposes takeovers, as “they tend to be in communities of color, and result in de-democratization.”

Gilliam also wants to add affordable housing to the city; clean up the resort’s main tourist strip Pacific Avenue; attract more non-gambling development and provide incentives for small businesses. Gilliam also told the AP that city government would work across bureaucratic boundaries in a resort where numerous state agencies hold power over its development.

“Atlantic City has been working in silos for 30 years,” he said. “We have to talk to one another.”

However, Gilliam could quickly find himself at odds with the new governor, as Guardian did with outgoing Governor Chris Christie. Murphy supports expanding casino gaming outside of Atlantic City, something resort officials vehemently oppose.

Murphy has said the state must expand casinos to remain competitive with other state’s such as New York.

“We’re desperate for jobs. If it’s not in North Jersey, before we know it, it will be on the west side of Manhattan,” Murphy said during a gubernatorial debate before the election. “My fear is if there’s a casino on the west side of Manhattan, they won’t send one red cent to Atlantic City.”

State voters overwhelmingly defeated a referendum in 2016 to expand casino gaming and allow two casinos to be built in northern New Jersey. Though that referendum did not name specific projects, proposed casinos at The Meadowlands and in Jersey City were considered the frontrunners.

Opposition to the referendum was strong in southern New Jersey, though several casinos in Pennsylvania and New York also helped finance ads opposing the plan.

Though the referendum was soundly defeated, under state law a new referendum could be brought before voters in 2018. Supporters have said they hope to put a more specific and detailed casino plan before voters.