Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2016 12:01 am
People looking to assign blame for their misfortunes typically are reluctant to look in the mirror, so it’s not surprising that in this worst of times for the Atlantic City area, elected officials and some residents are quick to fault the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.
A state agency that channels some of the casino tax windfall into redevelopment projects, the CRDA deserves criticism sometimes, can’t help but do what’s needed but not necessarily popular other times, and occasionally is just wrongly and absurdly targeted by those it has helped.
The latest example of the latter is a ridiculous proposal by Atlantic City Council to have the CRDA pay property tax on undeveloped land it assembles and prepares for redevelopment for the benefit of Atlantic City.
Under state law, the CRDA, like other redevelopment agencies, is exempt from such taxes. The CRDA has spent $1.5 billion on projects within the city and another $164 million on projects elsewhere in South Jersey.
Even if none of this were true and City Council managed to grab its latest fantasy pot of gold, the maximum payoff might be a paltry $1.8 million in taxes (after several years, and probably less after tax appeals). That’s less than 2 percent of the annual Atlantic City budget deficit alone.
The CRDA’s recent $1.1 million rescue of the Steel Pier company from a debt-default lawsuit, however, does raise doubts about that project to provide more family entertainment in the resort. Will there be a payoff from more amusements there, and would other projects have paid off sooner?
Those questions are interesting but kind of pointless now, since the CRDA already had loaned Steel Pier more than $11 million. It had to keep the pier on track to operate and add a giant Ferris wheel in the fall, since ride revenue is what’s expected to repay the loans.
For a clear CRDA mistake, just look to the so-called Art Park leveled last week to make way for a parking lot. Less than four years ago, the CRDA and the Atlantic City Alliance paid $3 million for a partial pirate ship of wood and some oversized, lighted words on the ground such as “Almost” and “Imagine” and “Look.” We think art, even unpopular art, is an important part of civilization, but not bad or pseudo art.
The Art Park was the biggest waste of esthetic money since the instantly doomed Atlantic Plaza, a fountain pool, lighthouse for nighttime laser shows, Boardwalk replica and stone jetty installed in 1997 at the expressway entrance into Atlantic City. Part of the CRDA-funded $88 million Grand Boulevard project, the plaza never functioned properly and was soon mercifully removed to provide space for The Walk retail center.
Thinking the Art Park would make locals or visitors think better of the city was absurd, and in its small way wasteful given the tremendous real needs of the city.
The art blunder is a reminder that as the city approaches a period of critical redevelopment, the CRDA will need scrutiny to ensure its funds – sure to be insufficient to the need – will be deployed as effectively as possible.