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Mayor-elect Guardian: Atlantic City is now ‘open for business’

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Mayor Don Guardian is pushing A.C.
Mayor Don Guardian is pushing A.C. - (NJBIZ STAFF)

Don Guardian wants you to hit the jackpot next time you're in Atlantic City.

But rather than a pull of the lever or a roll of the dice, the city's new Republican mayor-elect has a different strategy.

Come invest and be wildly successful.

Just don't cash-out overnight.

“This city is open for business because I want you to make a boatload of money in my city,” Guardian, 60, said. “But all I ask you to do is share some of that wealth with the people you're going to hire and reinvest some of that money (here).”

But starting Jan. 1, Guardian will be the new face of a city that knows all too well what it means to be down on one's luck. Earlier this month, Moody's Investor Service downgraded Atlantic City's credit rating, citing falling casino revenues and ongoing tax appeals.

And the outlook doesn't good either as just in the last two years, Atlantic City has seen the budding casino industry in Pennsylvania overtake its long-held No. 2 spot in the gaming market behind Las Vegas.

Guardian says he's not naïve about the industry's troubles. That might have to do with his own background in gaming, starting as executive assistant to the president of the Claridge in the early 1990s and later becoming the executive director of the Atlantic City Special Improvement District and eventually the director of the Casino Redevelopment Authority's Special Improvement District.

Sure, there's the hope that online gaming will help combat the rise in fleeing customers. But it's too early to tell what effect, if any, it will have on the shore resort's bottom line.

Rather than fight the declining casinos, Guardian says it's imperative that Atlantic City work with them. But with the high percentage of the tax base that's controlled by the industry — equaling 70 percent, according to Moody's — does he really have a choice? Guardian admits that at this point, the fortunes of the city and the casinos are “intertwined.”

“They're not the enemy,” Guardian says. “They're our business partners and a very integral part of the city.”

Moving the casinos from beyond just gaming resorts to regional and national entertainment destinations is the key, he said. In turn, he hopes they'll be good community partners.

“Atlantic City always was successful because we had something that you didn't have in your own hometown,” Guardian said. “We lost that … We need to reinvent ourselves once again.”

Well, Guardian's got a few ideas.

He wants to draw the attention of a regional college or university, like Stockton for example, and develop a campus in the city. Add on to that wish list some new housing for a young professional class and a redevelopment of Kentucky Avenue, the historic corridor once home to the city's nightlife and Club Harlem.

“All I'm trying to do is not put all of our eggs in one basket this time,” Guardian says.

Guardian says he wants to run the city as if he were its CEO. In his first 100 days, he plans on holding 100 meetings with city employees to discuss everything from street lights to trash collection. He says accountability will be a focus, and it starts from the ground up.

Trenton is also listening.

Guardian has not yet taken office and he has already had three meetings with state Senate president Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and a sit-down with Gov. Chris Christie. That's a far cry from the relationship Guardian's soon-to-be predecessor, Democrat Lorenzo Langford, has had with the state.

Remember the mayor Christie yelled at for not complying with his Superstorm Sandy evacuation orders? That was Langford.

“I'm grateful that Lorenzo Langford is gone,” Christie candidly said during a press conference earlier this month.

While in town just a couple weeks ago for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities Conference, Sweeney made it a point to have a public meeting with Guardian as the two had a power lunch at the city's famed White House Sub Shop.

Sweeney told reporters afterward that he had zero sit-downs with Langford during his tenure and pledged to support Guardian's rehab of Atlantic City.

“We can't afford to have this community fail,” Sweeney said.

Guardian says he intends to keep that relationship strong.

“There's no way the city moves forward without the governor and the mayor on the same page,” Guardian said.

Guardian said that in the meetings, Christie and Sweeney were both very “keen” on the business incentives now available through the recently passed Economic Opportunity Act. He said all agree that it provides a “start on how we're going to get businesses to relocate to Atlantic City.”

But that's just it; it's a start. Guardian says he knows he's got to put in the work himself, too.

“I'm going to cry at night if you pick Ocean City or Wildwood or Asbury Park before you pick Atlantic City because it meant that I didn't do the best negotiations for my city,” Guardian said.

“So if you're building somewhere on the Jersey Shore, you're building in an urban environment, I want that to be Atlantic City.”

E-mail to: andrewg@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @andrgeorge

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Andrew George

Andrew George

Andrew George covers the Statehouse from NJBIZ's Trenton bureau. Born and raised in N.J., Andrew has also spent time as a reporter in D.C., Texas and Pa. His email is andrewg@njbiz.com and he is @AndrGeorge on Twitter.

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