Atlantic City mayor sees big conventions as harbingers of better times

Daniel J. Munoz//November 17, 2021

Atlantic City mayor sees big conventions as harbingers of better times

Daniel J. Munoz//November 17, 2021

With the New Jersey League of Municipalities holding one of the first major events during the Atlantic City conference season, state and local officials expressed optimism about the region’s outlook.

“We appreciate the economic impact that you continue to make on Atlantic City, and we missed it last year,” said Atlantic City Mayor Marty Smalls, during a League luncheon on Nov. 17. “AC is back, the League is back, and we’re truly excited to have the League here. We hope that it stays here for many years.”

COVID-19 business closures of casinos, entertainment venues, restaurants, event spaces and hotels – the biggest employers in the Atlantic City area – drove unemployment to over 26% last year, one of the nation’s highest jobless rates.

The League, which typically draws upwards of 14,000 attendees in mid-November, and the New Jersey Education Association, which held its convention earlier in the month, kick off the conference, convention and trade show season.

Michael Cerra, head of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

Traditionally, when the autumnal chill sends beachgoers and boardwalk strollers home, Atlantic City becomes a destination for conferences, conventions, trade shows and other large-scale events. The conference season in the resort town is an economic boon, ensuring a steady stream of visitors beyond beach season.

Other events this winter include the cheerleading competition Spirit Cheer 2022 which is slated to take place in early January with a projected turnout of 25,000. The Atlantic City Classic Car Show and Auction 2022 in February is expected to draw 30,000 attendees.

“Continue to enjoy our town – everything it has to offer. It’s only going to get better,” Smalls said.

Many event organizers said they were watching the NJ League and NJEA conventions to get an idea of what works in terms of vaccination and masking requirements, along with other COVID-19 mitigation efforts, and where there’s room for improvement.

“A lot of us have been talking to one another, we would share information and what the best practices are and what we’re doing,” said Michael Cerra, the League’s executive director.

The nine casinos had to close their brick and mortar operations for three months last year, and instead relied on internet and mobile phone gambling and sports betting, causing casino revenue to fall significantly, though it’s since rebounded.

“Thank goodness we had the foresight to pass sports betting legislation in New Jersey, because that has kept the industry alive,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said at the Nov. 16 luncheon.

Oliver, who doubles as head of the Department of Community Affairs, which has managed Atlantic City’s finances since 2016, said last year that the takeover will continue well past 2021, which is when the oversight was initially scheduled to end.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver before Gov. Murphy’s first State of the State address at the Statehouse in Trenton.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver. – AARON HOUSTON

Ahead of the state takeover, five of the city’s casinos closed, triggering job losses and depressing tax revenue for the city. Amid the Great Recession and ensuing decrease in casino patronage, the casinos argued that their properties were worth less than their assessments indicated.

That posed a problem for Atlantic City, which budgeted for revenues that essentially vanished, and pushed the seaside town to the brink of financial ruin. With the city at risk of defaulting, then-Gov. Chris Christie approved the controversial takeover that year.

Since then, regional leaders have sought to diversify the city’s economy with the addition of offshore wind projects, a Stockton University campus and a South Jersey Industries office presence.

“While I was still in the Legislature, there was a period of time when Atlantic City was really confronted with some tough challenges,” Oliver continued. “Budgets had to be right-sized” and Atlantic City was on the “brink of perhaps bankruptcy.”

“There are great, phenomenal things going on down here. If you speak to construction, are you going to see cranes in the air very soon.”