The Jersey Score

Paul Nolan

In November 2013, Donald Guardian became the first Republican to be elected mayor of Atlantic City in 23 years. Within months after taking office, Gardner, a reluctant candidate to begin with, was hit with the closing of four of the city’s casinos, including the Revel Casino Hotel, which cost $2.4 billion to build and was open only two years before it closed.

The city’s property value plummeted from more than $20 billion in 2010 to just over $11 billion in 2014. Meanwhile, property taxes jumped by more than 20 percent two years in a row. In October 2014, 11.2 percent of the people living in the Atlantic City-Hammonton, New Jersey metropolitan area were jobless, compared with a nationwide unemployment rate of 5.8 percent.

Guardian “needs to be part-turnaround artist, part-real estate salesman, part-marketing guru, part-Superman if he stands a chance of helping save a small city on the precipice of disaster,” business reporter Brian X. McCrone wrote in a March 2014 profile of Guardian.

Nearly one year removed from the closing of Revel in September 2014, Guardian feels Atlantic City is rebounding, in large part due to an effort to diversify the city’s revenues away from gaming. An aggressive effort to bring more meetings and events to Atlantic City has seen group bookings in 2015 increase by more than 37 percent over 2014, which ended on a high note itself.

There is a long way to go, but Guardian, a self-described Roman Catholic, Eagle Scout, Rotarian, bow tie-wearing, bicycle-riding, openly gay man, feels more than up to the challenge.

SMM: You are a year removed from what is perhaps Atlantic City’s lowest point as a municipality. How are things?

Guardian: We’ve had the best summer in more than 15 years in Atlantic City. Gross gaming revenue is up double digits at most of the casinos. We see a continued trend to increase non-gaming revenue as well. We used to be at $100 million of non-gaming revenue a year in Atlantic City; we hit $1 billion last year and we think we can come in 7 or 8 percent above that.

SMM: What has led the turnaround?

Guardian: Clearly, we’re happy with gaming, but we need to be expanding a lot more beyond that. We have great entertainment, concerts on the beach, triathlons, the largest East Coast air show, the Miss America Pageant – all of these groups that bring between 10,000 and 50,000 people to a singular event do real well in Atlantic City. As we transition, convention and conferences are a key component to what will be Atlantic City’s move into the future. We think we’re well-poised to do that.

SMM: Harrah’s opens its new Waterfront Conference Center in September. What else is helping you attract more meetings?

Guardian: Resorts Casino Hotel just opened its newly expanded meeting and conference space. [Developer] Bart Blatstein purchased the Pier Shops at Caesars and is opening eight or nine clubs under one roof, a bowling alley and a sports bar. We think that’s the type of non-casino business that makes a whole lot of sense.

Borgata Festival Park is realizing that outdoor venues play well. Tropicana did a spectacular light and sound show the entire length of their boardwalk this summer and was packing in the business in gaming and non-gaming. We had two beach bars open this year. In September, Endeavor Property Group is buying the Atlantic Club and will be turning it into a hotel and entertainment complex with two water parks. We have 150 restaurants that have opened in the last 10 years. We have made our mark on fine dining and fun dining all over the city, not just in the casino properties.

SMM: You have lived here for more than 25 years now and prior to becoming mayor you held executive positions with the casinos and the city’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for much of that time. Did Atlantic City once have meeting business and it just went away?

Guardian: Atlantic City has always tried to put all of its eggs in one basket. For the last 35 years, obviously, it’s been gaming. But before that, our forefathers were smart enough to build Boardwalk Hall as the first convention center back in 1929. It did real well for 20 or 30 years. We’re not trying to go back to any single item. We want to diversify our economy and our city. But we see conventions business and conference business making a whole lot of sense. We’re seeing activities that do very well when conventions are in town. For instance we have an art garage with a dozen artists in residence and it’s a great place that groups love to book for cocktail receptions. We have an aquarium in town that does well with families, but it also becomes a great place for an after-hours reception as well that is out of the ordinary. Some of our boat charters cater specifically to conventions. At the end of the day you can jump on a boat and go for a dolphin watch or catch the sunset on the back bays or on the ocean.

SMM: In previous interviews you have done since being elected, you have mentioned that city leaders simply made bad decisions that brought on this predicament. What were those decisions?

Guardian: Having any one [source of revenue] for any one city is certainly not the way to go, whether we were doing only steel mills, or gaming, or only the building of automobiles. At some point it blew up on us. Gaming was great for us for 30 years, but those were great years with lots of income coming into the city when we really should have taken advantage and diversified our market. First, we should have diversified with tourism because that’s what we’ve been doing for 160 years; second, we should have realized that we’re not just a Jersey Shore town – we’re an urban environment. The concept of a university and corporate offices could have fulfilled the dreams of our residents, which is a better quality of life, jobs, lower taxes, etcetera.

SMM: What cities do you compete with for meetings business?

Guardian: Certainly Philadelphia because of our proximity to each other. I think Boston, Providence and Baltimore are all areas that are comparable in terms of the square footage that they can offer. The biggest asset we have is the number of people who are within a four-hour drive of Atlantic City. That’s always been the success of the city.

We have an airport that is really developing into a great airport, but it’s difficult to get new flights because we have to compete with Philly and Newark and LaGuardia and Kennedy. The major airlines that are flying out of those locations don’t want to tempt the fate and lose any business there. Our biggest advantage is the Expressway and the Parkway coming so close to us. It’s an easy way to get here.

SMM: What is on your wish list for taking the next step in getting more meetings business?

Guardian: One of the advantages that Atlantic City has that would be almost impossible to build today is a 60-foot wide pedestrian walkway that connects all of our hotels without any vehicular traffic – that’s our Boardwalk. As we continue to rebuild the Boardwalk, it doesn’t just provide a nice healthy way to see the ocean, it ties in all of the business along the way. Gardner’s Basin will be 25 acres and we’ll put that out for request for proposal to develop it very much the way Baltimore developed its Inner Harbor.

SMM: It sounds like Meet AC, your new lobbying arm for meetings business, is having great success.

Guardian: Jim Wood [Meet AC President and CEO] and the people at Meet AC are telling people if they haven’t been here in a couple of years, they should kick our tires. Take a look at what we have been doing, whether it’s paving streets, landscaping, reducing crime, putting new lighting in town or other amenities, and adding new activities. If you haven’t been here in a couple of years I think we will impress you.

SMM: It’s two years away, but will you run for re-election?

Guardian: I love it. There certainly has been a lot of crises that occurred, but I’m glad I have been at the helm during this period because I think I bring a vision for the city that will move it where it’s never been before.