South Jersey’s watchword for 2014 is “change,” with substantial infrastructure projects planned for the region’s beaches and roads and a mayor-elect’s promised new direction for Atlantic City. The growth of non-gambling economic drivers could finally be on the horizon as New Jersey welcomes a rare cold-climate Super Bowl, a major airline returns to Atlantic City International Airport and a new caretaker is overseeing development at the languishing NextGen aviation park adjacent to the airport. And, of course, fallout from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy continues to affect area homeowners, businesses and politics.
Buckle up, South Jersey; 2014 promises to be a heckuva ride.
Guardian transition in Atlantic City
Don Guardian’s swearing-in ceremony today could begin a major transition for Atlantic City. He will be the resort’s first openly gay mayor and the first Republican elected since 1990. During his campaign, the longtime director of the city’s Special Improvement District outlined an ambitious set of goals to reinvigorate the local economy. Guardian plans to make improving development and infrastructure _ of everything from Bader Field to Pacific Avenue’s potholes – a priority this year. In November’s election, Guardian leveraged a diverse coalition of supporters from various economic and ethnic backgrounds with the promise of a new direction for the city. The next year will determine if those high expectations can be met.
Super Bowl comes to New Jersey
Super Bowl XLVIII cq will be the most expensive to date when the game begins at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in Bergen County on Feb. 2. While a local economic study hasn’t been completed _ the National Football League estimates $550 million for the region overall _ the $70 million event’s impact is expected to ripple throughout the state. An estimated 80,000 people will attend, with many expected to turn the Sunday championship game into a long weekend. Local chambers of commerce hope to lure some of those visitors to gambling and other attractions in South Jersey. And the Super Bowl, typically hosted in states with warmer climates, will provide free publicity for a state tourism industry still recovering after Hurricane Sandy.
Garden State Parkway improvements
An assortment of long-gestating improvement projects will begin or continue this year. That could mean inconvenienced motorists in the short term, but state officials say it will lead to faster and safer commutes for decades to come. A $125 million project to remove three traffic lights on the parkway in Cape May County began in 2013 and is expected to be completed next year; the actual lights will be removed this year. Meanwhile, a 10-mile stretch of the parkway in Atlantic and Ocean counties will be widened as part of a larger $900 million project expected to be completed in 2016. Full exits at Interchanges 41 and 44 in Galloway Township, at a cost of $32.6 million, along with a $7 million service plaza, are expected to be completed next year.
United begins flights out of ACY
United is the first of what airport officials hope to be many major airlines to fly out of Atlantic City International Airport when it commences operations on April 1. The airline previously flew out of the Egg Harbor Township airport in the early 1990s but, like many others, it eventually discontinued service. Company officials said they hope to become “New Jersey’s hometown airline,” with flights already taking off from Newark Liberty International Airport. Business leaders and casino industry analysts say their presence could boost the regional economy by making it easier to travel to Atlantic City by air.
Stockton works to revive NextGen park
When it was announced in 2005, the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park was expected to create 2,000 highly paid jobs as the hub for the Federal Aviation Administration’s effort to modernize the national air traffic control system. In September, The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey took over the facility that has seen years of delay, financial setbacks and allegations of mismanagement. While no firm timetable has been set, Stockton has already given the facility a new name _ the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park _ and will finance operations over the next three years.
Local traffic improvements
A number of local traffic headaches are expected to be alleviated in 2014. Atlantic City Mayor-elect Don Guardian has vowed to hasten the repaving of Pacific Avenue, a project that could begin as early as April. Ocean City will complete a $3.5 million project this year to improve a 12-block stretch of Bay Avenue. Meanwhile, Cape May County plans to launch $35 million in road projects this year county-wide. Ocean County crews will continue work on the Route 72 causeway, the only link between Long Beach Island and the mainland. Construction on various stages of the project is planned through 2019.
Fallout from Sandy continues
Communities and property owners continue to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy more than a year later. The biggest question for most homeowners is insurance. Federal reforms could significantly increase premiums, but the state’s congressional delegation has fought to blunt those impacts. Increasing costs could dramatically alter the real estate market and the demographics of the Jersey Shore. Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, has pushed for beach replenishment and dune projects statewide in 2014. Despite a November referendum rejecting the dunes, Margate officials were recently told by the state Department of Environmental Protection that the project would move forward “regardless of whether Margate chooses to cooperate.” And there are less obvious impacts: Some towns, such as Brigantine, face costly infrastructure upgrades and the storm has allowed Egg Harbor Township to move forward with its long-planned redevelopment of West Atlantic City this year.
Bass Pro Shops comes to A.C.
With an opening tentatively set for the fall, the outdoor sports retailer Bass Pro Shops is expected to bring about 200 full- and part-time jobs to Atlantic City. The 86,000-square-foot store near The Walk shopping district will receive a public investment of more than $34 million, including a $12.3 million construction loan from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Bass Pro Shops has continued to expand nationwide during the recession with annual sales of about $2.6 billion, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
Political season begins early
Politics never ends. The biggest story of 2014 could be the “will he or won’t he” speculation about a possible presidential run by Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican. In recent years, Christie has become a national figure, even taking a starring role in the state’s “Stronger than the Storm” ad campaign. A December poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University put Christie at the top of a list of likely 2016 Republican candidates, with 18 percent of those polled saying they would like to see him run for president. Meanwhile, Democrat Bill Hughes Jr. _ son of the longtime congressman for whom the FAA’s Atlantic County facility was named _ has already announced he will challenge incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo. Look for more announcements to come as candidates launch their campaigns earlier and earlier.
Military teams return to A.C. AirShow
The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels will return to the 2014 Atlantic City AirShow. Federal budget cuts had grounded both teams last year, to the disappointment of thousands of aviation enthusiasts who attend the event. This year also marks the AirShow’s move to late summer, on Aug. 13, although the change appears to be temporary as the 2015 show is scheduled for next May.
Garden State Film Festival heads south
Asbury Park’s loss will be Atlantic City’s gain when the Garden State Film Festival moves to the gambling town in April. Now in its 12th year, the festival routinely drew about 300,000 people in Asbury Park. Its move was prompted by a dispute between the Monmouth County city and a developer that could have shut down the festival venue. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has allocated $300,000 to help the festival relocate. Organizers say its economic impact is estimated at $824,000. Film buffs will likely have two festivals to enjoy as the Atlantic City Cinefest _ formerly the Downbeach Film Festival _ is tentatively scheduled for the fall.
Police reform amid push to stem violence
Atlantic City’s police department has been the subject of a succession of civil lawsuits alleging excessive force and civil rights violation in recent years. In 2013, one lawsuit involving a Linwood man garnered national attention when a security video of an alleged assault was released. Mayor-elect Don Guardian has vowed to address the issue this year, with plans to launch the long-discussed (but never enacted) Civilian Review Board, which would examine such allegations. The existing lawsuits will work their way through the courts this year and an attorney in one of the cases has said she expects to file several more. Meanwhile, a partnership among various community groups and government agencies will continue to work to stem violence. One of their initiatives, Project 365, is designed to address the top problems in Atlantic City’s six wards from within the community.
Authorities respond to heroin epidemic
A wave of heroin overdoses swept across South Jersey in 2013; the trend will likely continue this year. In response to what authorities are calling an epidemic, the Atlantic City-based South Jersey AIDS Alliance announced that it would begin distributing naloxone, a drug that can counteract the effects of opiates such as heroin and morphine. The goal is to have the drug, also known as narcan, in the hands of drug users to administer immediately in the event of an overdose. Police in Ocean County will also begin carrying the drug this month and Cape May County is also considering having police carry the drug when they respond to calls.
First minimum wage increase since ‘09
In November, New Jersey voters approved an increase to the state’s minimum wage that will take effect this month. This raises the minimum wage by about 14 percent, or $1 more an hour—from $7.25 to $8.25—and ties future increases to cost-of-living adjustments. The change was lauded by the lowest-wage workers. The New Jersey Policy Perspective says the wage increase will affect nearly 450,000 employees and will help a segment of low-wage workers struggling to afford to live in a high-cost state. Various business and industry groups opposed the increase and its provision to tie future raises to inflation, arguing that higher wages would force business to cut hours or scale back on employees.