After four years at the helm of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, John F. Palmieri was starting to think about leaving.
“I turned 60 last February, and I thought initially I would resign and do some international relief work,” he said. “I’d always wanted to do that.”
Then he got a call from a search firm about a job in his home state. The headhunters asked if he’d be interested in leading the Casino Reinvestment and Development Authority. Weeks later, he found himself on a tour of Atlantic City, a place he’d visited intermittently over the years. When he saw The Walk — the 100-store outlet mall on Baltic Avenue — “it knocked me off my feet,” he said.
“When I saw the outlet, when I toured the casinos, when I went to the Marina District, those were visits that had a lot of impact on my sense of the potential,” he said.
With more than 30 years of economic development experience, Palmieri has been around long enough to know potential when he sees it. He’s also been around long enough to realize the value of the bipartisan support behind Atlantic City’s revitalization, which was made clear in separate meetings with Gov. Chris Christie and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford).
And so, the Hoboken native took the job, where he’s been since Oct. 3.
Palmieri attended Temple University, in Philadelphia, and earned his master’s degree in public administration from the University of Rhode Island before taking his first job trying to spur economic development in Central Falls, R.I., a small city coping with the departure of the textile industry. He then moved to Providence, R.I., where he would spend nearly 18 years, raising his family and rising to the top of the city’s planning and development office. In 2002, he became Charlotte, N.C.’s first economic development director. He took a similar job in Hartford, Conn., in 2004, before Boston lured him away in 2007.
“I’ve always enjoyed cities,” he said. “I grew up in an urban center. I like the idea that good policy and good management can make a difference in the lives of people — rebuilding cities, creating new initiatives and building economies.”
In Charlotte, a sprawling, 600-square-mile southern suburban environment, “development” often meant paving previously untouched green fields. Palmieri prefers the Northeast, where economic development means finding adaptive reuses for existing buildings, filling in gaps in development, and crafting policies and incentives to stem the tide of disinvestment.
That’s the job Palmieri faces in Atlantic City. The resort town has seen its chief industry — gaming — falter in the face of increasing competition, but Palmieri will combat the problem with an unprecedented toolbox, courtesy of lawmakers in Trenton.
The state this year put CRDA in charge of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority and a new, state-controlled tourism district. The casinos, meanwhile, have set up the Atlantic City Alliance, which will spend up to $30 million annually promoting the city in partnership with CRDA.
CRDA Chairman James B. Kehoe said Palmieri brings a thoughtful, yet decisive, approach to his new post.
“You can tell John has done this before, and John is one who is not going to make a quick decision,” he said.
During the selection process, Kehoe said Palmieri’s resume stood out.
“We vetted a lot of candidates from around the country, and the experience, the accomplishments that John is bringing to Atlantic City are the best in the country,” he said.
Unlike his previous jobs, Palmieri is only in charge of part of the city, and the mayor, Lorenzo Langford, isn’t Palmieri’s boss, though Langford sits on CRDA’s board. Palmieri said his goal is to forge an open and collaborative relationship with Langford, an open critic of the tourism district, and the city.
“In the end, of course, I have a constituency that I have to serve, I have responsibilities that I have to meet, as does he (Langford),” Palmieri said. “Let’s hope that we can reach an accommodation as often as possible.” Langford could not be reached for comment at deadline.
Michael Busler, a Stockton College business professor, said one of Palmieri’s challenges — indeed, one of the challenges of the tourism district — will come from city residents, who he said feel ignored due to the heavy focus on tourism. Palmieri, he said, would do well to see that the improvements he makes have an impact beyond the tourism district.
“With the state’s taking over of the tourism district, and with that the resources the state has, and with the increased percentage of CRDA’s revenue that will stay in Atlantic City — I believe he does have the tools for success,” Busler said. “If he could somehow incorporate the locals into this, I think he’d have a greater chance of success.”
Prior to Palmieri’s arrival, CRDA agreed to pay real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle nearly $800,000 to develop a master plan, due Feb. 1, for Atlantic City. In the meantime, Palmieri said he’s looking at ways his agency can make the city cleaner and safer, in partnership with the city government: “If you can’t reinforce a clean and safe environment, everything else is moot,” he said.
Palmieri also has been meeting with various stakeholder groups, including the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Joseph Kelly said he’s been impressed with Palmieri’s outreach.
“We’re optimistic that the people will all get in the same direction to move the ball forward,” he said. “And the ball, in this case, is the visitors and the marketplace” as the city works to “diversify our product into dining, entertainment and retail … (to) become a destination resort.”
Palmieri said there’s plenty of room — and prime real estate — to grow the city’s entertainment offerings. He hopes the city’s new marketing efforts will create momentum by boosting the number of tourists visiting.
“That, then, encourages the private sector,” he said.
Palmieri has a three-year contract with CRDA — plenty of time to make a difference, if not reverse the city’s fortunes entirely, he said: “If we haven’t made a noticeable difference in three years, shame on us.”
In a city known for gambling, Palmieri said, taking the job wasn’t a professional gamble. “If I were 40, maybe,” he said. “But at 60, no, not really. I’d like to think that my experience, my background, are well suited to this position. I understand the challenge. I understand the need, the sense of urgency. The governor’s made that clear, as has Senator Sweeney.”
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