Atlantic City mayor critical of Christie’s five-year program

ATLANTIC CITY — As a former dealer and pit boss on the Boardwalk, Mayor Lorenzo Langford is committed to seeing the city’s casino industry recover, despite his well-publicized disputes with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie over reforms implemented by the state that the mayor says cut him and other city leaders out of the process.

Langford, Atlantic City’s mayor since 2002, was critical of Christie’s reform package that was passed by state lawmakers in 2011 and put authority over the city’s 12 casinos under the state through a newly created tourism district.

In an interview Friday in his seventh-floor City Hall conference room, Langford said the first two years of Christie’s planned five-year program haven’t shown any notable improvements.

“The numbers don’t lie,” Langford said, citing gaming revenue statistics that showed declines of 6.9 percent in 2011 and 8 percent in 2012. Atlantic City tourism and gaming leaders, however, cite upticks in nongaming areas, such as luxury tax collections, sales taxes and occupied hotel room nights.

Langford supports the casino industry’s push to create more nongaming amenities, such as restaurants, nightclubs and retail offerings. He likes the glitzy, $30 million a year “DO AC” advertising campaign produced by the casino-funded Atlantic City Alliance that touts the market as a destination resort.

He only wishes the casinos had undertaken the effort 10 years ago, before gaming competition from Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Delaware and the tanking national economy took business away from Atlantic City.

“We’re trying to be like Las Vegas and rely more on the nongaming business,” he said. “We just started too late.”

Langford sits on the board of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which was tasked by New Jersey lawmakers to collect 1.25 percent of casino gaming revenues and invest the money in community and economic development projects in Atlantic City and the state. Roughly $1.5 billion has been reinvested into Atlantic City since 1984.

Under Christie’s reform package, the authority was given more control over the casinos’ contributions. Casinos were also allowed to apply and recover the funds as investments into nongaming amenities on their properties.

For example, Resorts Atlantic City is paying for almost half its $35 million Margaritaville restaurant, beach bar and retail and expansion, which opens Memorial Day weekend, with authority contributions.

The Tropicana Atlantic City is using redevelopment money to add restaurants, including a branch of the Philadelphia-based Chickie’s and Pete’s sports bar, while renovating its Boardwalk entrances.

Langford’s concern was that the Atlantic City Housing and Economic Development fund that comes from the authority’s casino dollars not be touched. Over the years, the authority has built housing throughout Atlantic City, paid for by the fund.

“As long as those dollars are set aside for the purpose originally created, I don’t really care what happens to the rest of the money,” Langford said. “Historically, the CRDA has been pretty good at investing in the neighborhoods.”

Langford said he plans to seek a change that might allow the funds contributed by the casinos to be used as property tax rebates for residents.

“We’ve done a good job of building new units,” he said. “But we need to stabilize the current housing market.”

Langford believes in the casino industry. Before winning election to the City Council in 1992, he worked in the industry. He was one of the first dealers at Caesars Boardwalk Regency. He moved to Playboy Hotel Casino in 1981 as a floor person, and eventually rose to pit boss. He worked at the property when it was known as the Atlantis, and after it was closed and demolished, Langford worked for Trump Taj Mahal as a pit manager.

Langford’s concerns about Christie’s program include the design of the tourism district, which he says “segregates the poorer areas from the wealthier parts of Atlantic City.” When Christie announced the program at a news conference on the Boardwalk in 2011, Langford said he wasn’t given details ahead of time.

The approved plan effectively took control of the casino’s zoning and redevelopment issues away from the city and handed them to the state. Langford said he was able to kill through the Legislature one aspect of the plan that would have tasked Atlantic City with creating a second police force to cover the tourism district. The idea would have cost Atlantic City taxpayers $30 million a year.

Langford, a Democrat, and the Republican Christie have feuded off and on over the past few years. Christie attacked the mayor over his handling of Superstorm Sandy, saying Langford erred by allowing people to shelter on the barrier island ahead of the storm rather than making them evacuate.

Langford said Friday that Christie did not have all his facts when he spoke. Residents were advised to leave, he said, before Christie authorized evacuation.

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