A group of South Jersey business and political leaders gathered recently for the Greater Atlantic City Chamber’s Leadership Series: State of the Region event, held at the John F. Scarpa Academic Center on Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus.
The event included a networking breakfast and a panel discussion featuring Sen. Vince Polistina, R-2nd District; Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson; Absecon Mayor and President of the Atlantic County Mayors Association Kim Horton; and Oliver Cooke, associate professor of economics, William J. Hughes Center Policy Scholar School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Stockton University.
The discussion touched on a number of topics, questions, and issues central to Atlantic County, its residents, and its economic and business climates.
“Our panelists today represent a range of perspectives,” said Michael Chait, Greater Atlantic City Chamber president. “And I’m confident that their insights will provide valuable context for the challenges and opportunities we face in our region.”
The first question/topic was about the evolution of the economic landscape in Atlantic County over the past decade and which trends the panelists see shaping its future.
Horton opened the discussion by referring to the National Aerospace Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township — a key project for the county.
“I think we are on the right track. We need to bring more programs, experts and educational opportunities there. I think that’s wonderful,” said Horton. “The other investment is higher education – here at Stockton and ACCC [Atlantic Cape Community College]. The children are our future. This is a great venue and I’m happy that they [Stockton] are expanding. I hope they continue to expand.”
Polistina pointed to the evolution of the area’s economy he has seen in different public sector roles as regional gaming competition has grown – leading to casino closures and impacts on the tourism economy. “Over the last decade since that occurred, obviously you have seen a transition here from not just being focused on tourism. Many of you in the room are part of this,” Polistina explained. “We focused more on improving our educational situation here with higher ed, improving our medical facilities, and then the aviation industry. There are really four pillars I see now in Atlantic County – tourism, obviously we can never forget; education; medical, aviation. Those are really the four things in order to diversify this economy, create more opportunities – that I see as the evolution of the last decade and what we’re going to look to going forward.”
Cooke echoed many of the sentiments, noting that he had been in the area since around 2005 or so and has had an opportunity to see that evolution of the local and regional economy almost in real-time.
“In many ways, it is kind of remarkable, I think. You can almost talk of two different economies in some sense. You have the overall economy, which since 2012 in total employment base has actually declined,” Cooke explained. “But if you strip out the casino industry, for the reasons the senator made clear in the tumult that the industry went through, that number actually turns into like a plus-5% as opposed to a minus-5% over the last full decade, which really speaks to the efforts to diversify the local economy away from this historic dependence on the hospitality and gaming industry. I think all of the local economic development efforts to move in all of these other directions – meds and eds, the aviation hub – I think all of these are certainly going to be an important part of continuing to diversify the local economy and take it into the next decade.”
Levinson, the longtime county executive and one of the chief advocates of the aviation park project, closed out the round by declaring that the county’s economic future is bright. “For years, we have talked about needing more than just casino gaming. We need more than hospitality. We need more than the beach and the boardwalk. And that has always been our emphasis,” he said. “We know New York is going to get gaming. We know that North Jersey is pressing for it. So, how do we compete? We don’t necessarily compete that way. We already have the finest restaurants in the world, finest chefs, the finest entertainment, finest beach, finest boardwalk. We know that.”
Levinson continued by asking how the region could capitalize. “By diversifying. And it was mentioned – aviation. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the future of this county, the future of this area, future of the state, and possibly, the future of the country,” said Levinson. “We have an aviation park, and I wish you all would come out and visit it and see what we have. It caught on.”
The county executive discussed the genesis of the project and the efforts it took to garner support and financing for what seemed like a longshot proposition. “I do believe, if we build it, they will come,” Levinson recalled in his thinking for when the county decided to spearhead the effort. “And right now, they’re not only coming, they are banging on our door. We have our first building filled with NASA, Thunderbolt, General Dynamics. These are top corporations in the world. And they are here. If it wasn’t for COVID, we would have three buildings up. We have the second building that is going up. It is our future.”
The conversation continued with discussion about the pre- versus post-pandemic economy as well as policies and initiatives being done – or not being done – to promote business growth and job creation in Atlantic County, before shifting to what the panel viewed as the role of the local government in supporting area small businesses and entrepreneurs.
Horton noted that some businesses in her town tried to apply for the Neighborhood Preservation Program but did not qualify because of an income threshold, so she asked for the senator’s help on the issue, because she said the program has been helpful for municipalities.
Polistina said that local officials have to carry out the basic functions of local government. “That’s what local government has to do. It’s got to provide for public safety. It’s got to provide for public works and picking up trash. It’s got to provide for getting lights on and making sure communities are clean and lit and safe,” he said. “Those are the primary functions a local government has got to take on – just get back to the basics and provide the basic functions that local governments need to do. And then you can build from there, if there’s a situation where you can help with planning or zoning or trying to get people through the process quicker.”
Polistina noted his work as an engineer and how red tape and layers of bureaucracy can derail projects or even interest in taking on projects in certain areas for developers. “One of the things that developers want to see is just certainty and timing,” he explained. “They just don’t want to get drug out for an eternity trying to get things approved and permitted so they can get shovels in the ground. Those are things that local government can do.”
Cooke said he believes there is often a disconnect between accessing resources, especially above the local level and the small business community. “I think that is something that folks that are in local government, county government do and should do,” Cooke explained.
He added that while he was not saying the efforts are not done well, he did believe that there could be better coordination in terms of the funding and workforce development issues. “This is a classic case of someone just needing to bring these two parties together,” Cooke said. “And I think to the extent that you have people who need bodies and people who actually, genuinely want to work and want a job – that seems like such an easy thing to do. But oftentimes it is not as easy as we think.”
Levinson closed out the round by agreeing with Polistina’s point, stressing the importance of making the climate more business-friendly and not making businesses have to jump through hoops to get things done. He also noted the competition New Jersey faces from other states in this respect.
“The successful states that people want to go to, want to live in. It’s not just the sunshine,” said Levinson. “It’s easy to get yourself started. And in this state, it is – I’m not going to say next to impossible because people are successful. But until we streamline the process, as Vince said – he’s an engineer. He can do a whole seminar on why it’s difficult to do business in New Jersey. And, unfortunately, the county is one of 21 entities that makes up the State of New Jersey. We’re all in the same boat in the state. And it is unfortunate.”
Following a round on infrastructure projects, the panel discussion closed out with the speakers identifying the top challenges they foresee and what they are most excited about in the region.
In a recent opinion piece, the director of the Camden County Board of Commissioners, talks about how $8 million in funding will support that county’s police department. Click here to read more.
“A big challenge is with my police department. We’re seeing a lot of young men and women not choosing to be police officers. We need to support our officers. I know the frustration from my chief. I hear it all the time. My father was a captain in the State Police and my brother was a state trooper. So, I’m from a police family,” Horton explained. “I don’t want to defund the police. I want to empower them. I want them to get the resources they need. At this point, our numbers are down. And this is a real big concern of ours moving forward.”
Horton said she is most excited about the growth in Absecon – pointing to a slate of new businesses coming in, events, and some other efforts to continue making her town a thriving community for residents, prospective residents, and visitors.
Polistina began his closing remarks by echoing Horton’s calls for supporting law enforcement, which he described as critically important to the future of our society.
“If society is going to improve, we have to reverse this discourse where we’re not supporting law enforcement,” said Polistina. “Obviously, inflation is hurting everyone here, nationwide. We’ve got to get this inflationary period under control. A lot of the policies coming out of D.C. have caused it.”
The South Jersey senator also pointed to the hot-button issue of parental rights as well as energy policy, especially on the clean energy transition front, as other major challenges.
As for what he is excited about and what can be built on – Polistina cited the four building blocks. “We’ve got to make investments into these four pillars – education, medical, aviation, tourism,” he explained. “And if we do that, I wholeheartedly agree with Denny [Levinson], the future of this county is very, very bright.”
Cooke said that attracting people, especially young people, to these emerging jobs around the region is crucial, and pointed to a recent discussion he participated in about basic quality-of-life issues, such as housing costs, concerns over education, and more.
“To the extent that we want those people to stay long-term and raise families in the region, those issues become critically important,” Cooke explained. “There’s obviously a debate over – build it and they will come. That’s oftentimes not the case actually. It does not work out that way oftentimes. So, it’s build the right things and they will come.”
As for what he is excited about going on in the region, Cooke said many of these long-term projects and buildouts will take time to yield results and won’t happen overnight. So, he believes it is critical to continue to stay focused on the goals. “I think if we stay the course with these four pillars, we continue to make investments and think big,” Cooke stressed. “Think big – it’s a big county. It is a lot more than a little island. There’s opportunity there.”
“I think the greatest challenge that we have is public safety,” said Levinson, pointing to fallout from bail reform, which he said he initially supported.
And for what excited him the most: “I’m a one-trick pony – the aviation park,” said Levinson. “This is our future. And it’s not Atlantic City-centric. It’s Atlantic County-centric. And we are all going to benefit.”