ATLANTIC CITY - A full house showed up at Atlantic City Council chambers Monday to hear plans by a team of city-appointed architects, planners, and engineers on how to convert Bader Field and Gardner's Basin into moneymaking enterprises for the struggling city.
Mayor Don Guardian stood near the front to listen and watch the PowerPoint presentation by Maser Consulting P.A. of Red Bank.
The first half of the 21/2-hour meeting focused on transforming the 140 barren acres at Bader Field, a former airport, into a site for sporting events, athletic fields, retail, dining, and housing similar to Ocean City, Md.; Key West, Fla.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"The idea is to reactivate this site," said lead presenter Gerald DeFelicis Jr. of Maser. "Right now it's 140 acres of mostly nothing. We want to make it alive.
"It will have a residential theme. It could be [shops] or residential depending on demand."
DeFelicis said the timeline for converting Bader Field to this vision was 15 years or more.
A more immediate topic was Gardner's Basin - a 22-acre plot of city-owned land in the Northeast Inlet section that many consider a hidden jewel. City officials see the potential of transforming it to a tourist destination like Baltimore's Inner Harbor, which is similar in size, is next to the waterfront and a bank of hotels, and, like Gardner's Basin, which has to work harder in the winter to attract tourists.
"We have to make the waterfront more appealing," said David Roberts of Maser as he pointed to a rendering on the projection screen showing what the area could become. "We have to move it away from the edge [of the water] a little bit. And we need to create more parking along Rhode Island Avenue."
He said driving in the area was poorly organized, with too few exit signs. "Right now we have people driving all over the place, and that is not a viable option," he said.
Construction is expected to start in spring on work to make way for the Gardner's Basin expansion. The Army Corps of Engineers will cover $35 million to extend the Boardwalk to the basin for the first time since the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 damaged that section, and will add a seawall along portions of the Boardwalk. It is an 18-month, $50 million project.
It's part of the city's bigger plan to redevelop the Northeast Inlet and restore what Guardian calls the "wow factor" to the Boardwalk. The existing tenants occupy about eight acres. They lease the buildings and pay the city rent. They include the Atlantic City Aquarium, which was built in 1999 and is open year-round. There are two restaurants, the Back Bay Ale House and Gilchrist. A third, Scales Grill & Deck Bar, was damaged in Hurricane Sandy and replaced by two food trucks.
About 10 mini-craft shops that are closed in winter and reopen in May line a walkway to the aquarium. A surf shop and art gallery are open spring through fall. The existing tenants all lease their buildings.
On the remaining 14 open acres, Guardian envisions up to a half-dozen dining establishments and at least 30 more craft and retail shops. He wants to expand and move the amphitheater that seats up to 5,000, enlarge the aquarium, and add a parking lot and a fishermen's park with shaded areas.
Targeted completion for the expansion is the end of 2016. The final price tag is yet to be determined.
Guardian said the cash-strapped city planned to lease or sell the open land to collect rent or property taxes.
"There are a number of ways this area can be embellished," Roberts said.
Chelsea Heights resident Meghan Hardiman, 31, a nurse and pharmaceutical sales representative, said she was concerned that big retailers would come into Gardner's Basin and steamroller over the mom-and-pop vendors.
"What is Atlantic City doing to support the small business owner and retailer?" she asked the consulting group. "Right now, we need to invest in small businesses so they can make it."
Elizabeth Terenik, head of city planning and development, said requests for proposals for Gardner's Basin will go out in the next few weeks.
Tom Lamaine, a retired newscaster and lifelong resident of the Northeast Inlet, predicted the expansion of the Boardwalk to Gardner's Basin will ignite development.
"It's the only feasible, actual thing happening right now," he said to the packed room of about 250 people. "Things will gentrify from that. The Boardwalk will be the greatest feeder to that area."