ATLANTIC CITY - Can Atlantic City be a real place, a city with a life separate from its casino identity?
Philadelphia developer John Longacre (American Sardine Bar, South Philly Tap Room, Newbold) thinks so. "Every time a casino closes, I get goose bumps," he said.
That's because Longacre - along with a handful of developers who are to gather at a forum at noon Wednesday on new housing opportunities in Atlantic City - sees the epic contraction of the casino market as the key to the city's reinvented future.
He believes "a different population" - millennials, boomers, anyone who likes cities, not to mention a city with a beach - will want to live in the apartments he is building out of the historic Morris Guards Armory on New York Avenue in the center of town.
Longacre's LPMG Properties expects to close on the property this week and plans to sink a few million dollars into creating from 29 to 35 rental units priced between $900 and $1,200, with his coveted style of commercial use on the ground floor. "We're going to bring our family of brands to Atlantic City," Longacre said.
That's the kind of talk that gives city officials goose bumps.
Elizabeth Terenik, the planning director, will anchor the City Hall forum, designed to entice millennials, boomers, second-home owners, young professional year-rounders - anyone who might not otherwise consider Atlantic City an actual place to buy and/or live in.
It's a vision of Atlantic City that its leaders have been trying to push, swimming upstream against the torrents of bad news from the casino industry, tax base, and municipal finances.
"Getting Philly folks interested in investing in A.C. is one of the keys to our future," Terenik said in an e-mail recently.
She's hoping to increase the city's population by 10,000 (to 50,000), the proportion of home ownership from 30 percent to 50 percent, and the median household income in the city from $30,000 to $50,000.
Her targets are the 6.6 million baby boomers within a three-hour drive, and about 175,000 20- to 40-year-olds currently living in Atlantic, Cape May, and southern Ocean Counties, but not in Atlantic City itself.
In all, the city has 600 housing units approved or under construction, ranging from loft apartments to beachfront homes. Also attending Wednesday will be developers of the Breakers, a 160-unit beachfront project in the Chelsea section aimed at second-home owners, and the Beach at South Inlet, a 300-unit mid-rise near what will be Richard Stockton College's Island Campus, formerly the Showboat.
Stockton's entry has stoked dreams of millennials arriving to build on the hipper-than-you'd-think bars already in town, like Perfectly Innocent Amusement Co. on Tennessee Avenue, home of duck confit tater tots and Brumhattens.
The city is touting first-time-buyer programs, a mortgage program aimed at police and firefighters, and five-year tax abatements for up to $25,000 of improvement.
Longacre said he'd been nosing around Atlantic City for three years and took the plunge with the historic Morris Guards, between Atlantic and Pacific Avenues. He is looking at other opportunities in town, in the wake of casino closures that have "reset asset values" (meaning prices are super-low). "Atlantic City is the perfect canvas for us," he said.
"Do you think those younger people would rather hang out in the local strip mall," he said, "or would they rather go into the town that is kind of cool and has a beach?
He hopes other developers also will focus on the underachieving midtown business district, and the underserved middle market, including young people who now live in suburban towns such as Galloway.
"If you can pay the same amount [in A.C.] as you would in Northfield, where would you rather be?" Longacre said. "I went into bars and restaurants and I said, where do you live? 'Somers Point.' Why in God's name would a 28-year-old guy live in Somers Point?"