ATLANTIC CITY — Mayor-elect Frank M. Gilliam Jr., an Atlantic City native and councilman, will take office Jan. 1. His timing might be better than his predecessor, Don Guardian, who inherited a city on the verge of insolvency and watched five casinos close beginning two weeks after taking office. Not to mention a vast state takeover orchestrated by a hostile governor.
"Everything changes," said Gilliam, who in an interview Monday in his council office said he is planning a "SWOT analysis" of the city's recovering finances. "Our philosophy changes. There's going to be a progressive outlook that Atlantic City's going to have when it comes to the way we run business. The philosophy is, 'Why not?'?
Gilliam is already touting a victory. He says he has written assurance from the state overseers that the city's valuable Municipal Utility Authority, its waterworks, will remain under city control, despite private companies having expressed interest and repeated suggestions that Atlantic County take over operations.
Here are five ways the city might evolve under a Gilliam administration:
Whereas Guardian, 64, came in as a cheerleader, then morphed into a brawler, Gilliam, 47, likens himself to a point guard – adept at running the offense and dishing out the ball to the people he can rely on to score. And if that includes South Jersey insurance magnate and political power broker George E. Norcross III, he makes no apologies. He's consistently said he's open to deals with anyone who can produce.
"It's not my job to box people out who want to come assist Atlantic City," he said.
He promises no name-calling and no fighting with the governor, as both Guardian and former Mayor Lorenzo Langford got caught up in. With the always-combative Gov. Christie to be replaced on Jan. 16 by Phil Murphy, a Democrat who says he's against the state takeover of Atlantic City, that seems achievable.
"I consider myself a businessman first," said Gilliam, a graduate of Stockton University who also has a master's in social work from the University of San Francisco. "You can't have the personalities or personal interest affect how you run a business on a daily basis. I probably agree very little with what Gov. Christie has done, but it's not my purview to say things that are hurtful to the people."
Of the elusive generational holy grail, Gilliam says, "Atlantic City's survival depends on millennials being part of the process." He says his predecessor had "a lot going on at that moment in time," and that the next four years may bear more A.C. hipster fruit.
For starters, a bunch of captive twentysomethings will be arriving with the opening of Stockton's Atlantic City campus, complete with dormitories for upperclassmen and, presumably, some ramen to feed them. The Beach at South Inlet, a 250-unit market rate apartment building aimed at millennials, is due to open near the closed Revel casino hotel.
On the long-beleaguered Tennessee Avenue beach block, young developers, including Mark Callazzo of the city's Iron Room, among the first places to plant the hipster flag in Atlantic City, have several buildings due in 2018, including MADE, a hand-made-chocolate and wine bar, and the Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall.
Gilliam said he would move aggressively to help transform the down-and-out beach blocks, which remain some of the best (cheapest) waterfront opportunities left in New Jersey.
"That's not gentrification, that's an improvement in the condition of the area," Gilliam said. "You're talking about beach blocks where you have low-income [housing], parolees living on some of the most pristine areas of the city. When you look at areas proposed to be the highest and greatest use, what better way than to have Atlantic City reestablish itself than to create that energy on so many of our parcels?"
In addition to Stockton and a new South Jersey Gas headquarters, the Beach at South Inlet, Tennessee Avenue, a cool looking Biergarten on the Boardwalk, and the long-awaited Atlantic City Observation Wheel on the Steel Pier, the next four years should feature a novel narrative: casinos reopening.
Hard Rock Atlantic City, driven by local developers Joe Jingoli and Jack Morris, is slated for a total reboot of the old Taj Mahal next summer, and Gilliam predicts that the former $2 billion Revel will also reopen in new hands, despite what owner Glenn Straub is currently saying.
"Atlantic City will always be a place where folks go all in," Gilliam said. "We're not broke. The system is broken, but we're not broke."
Count on a new detente with New Jersey, courtesy of the Murphy administration and Lt. Gov.-elect Sheila Oliver, who as the head of the Department of Community Affairs will oversee the state's authority in Atlantic City. She's been against the takeover, and Gilliam expects the West Orange law firm appointed by Christie to execute that takeover to be shown the door, but not before its bills to taxpayers have left $3 million a distant memory.
He expects more help from the state and less usurpation of power.
"The people elected us to run our own town," Gilliam said. "It has to come with assistance, not a punitive relationship. It's my job to more or less create that conversation."
With Murphy pro-legalization, Gilliam wants Atlantic City to have first dibs on a legalized weed monopoly (no, not the kind your returning college kids undertake in hazy late-night board-game marathons).
Try out legalized marijuana in Atlantic City, he proposes.
"Five years, Atlantic City exclusively," Gilliam said. "We would get the lion's share of the revenue for it."
Gilliam's also anticipating Atlantic City sports betting if green-lighted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and a host of other items on a progressive's agenda, including environmental issues like the helium balloon ban he championed while on Council, and social issues like A.C.'s stubborn 30 percent poverty rate.
He says New Jersey will notice a difference with a Democrat back in office.