The editorial duo at Route 40 sat down with Atlantic City Mayor Frank Gilliam and his Millennial Understander Beard to talk Bader Field, marijuana reform and the future of the city.
This interview, which took place on Feb. 22, has been edited for clarity/concision:
Route 40: “Did you grow that [beard] to appeal to Millennials?”
Mayor Frank Gilliam: “Most certainly. I have to play the part.
“If I want them to come to town I have to look like them.”
RT 40: “Do you think that’s a serious thing [AC’s becoming a live-work-play destination for young people]?”
MFG: “It’s most certainly a serious thing. If you look around the country and you see that these small businesses that they’re basically creating have had an impact. That’s really what makes a city, in my opinion, thrive.
“It’s very important for us as the City of Atlantic City to be open to that ideology simply because we have a group of millennials that’s probably about to start studying here in 2018.”
RT 40: “I wanted to ask about Bader Field. What is the status?”
MFG: “Just as of yesterday we had a talk with Jeff Chiesa the state manager, asking him what the final outcome was with Bader.
“They aren’t confident that any of the bidders that came in were justified, in terms of having the finances to actually produce what they say they’re going to produce.
“I asked him how come we can’t go back to the original agreement that we had with Bader Sports, which was allowing the interim use of, I believe, nine baseball fields, a sports bubble, and the erection of a community center, until further notice from the market.
“Right now, I think that we haven’t marketed the city correctly. We surely haven’t marketed that parcel correctly. I think at some point we should begin to look at sectioning it off. I don’t think that there’s a financial appetite for someone to come in with deep pockets to say, hey I want to develop the entire parcel.”
RT 40: “There was a guy [Alan Dalsass] who had a plan for amphitheaters and a race track. He had money from funds, various…”
MFG: “He did not produce it to us. This is where the city and the state does see things eye-to-eye.
“We’ve gotten so many proposals where folks said that they have the money to do ‘X’ but it’s always contingent on them having exclusivity of the parcel, which tells us and tells me frankly that you really don’t have the money. You want to go market it after you have the exclusivity, and that’s not a good business model for me or for Atlantic City anymore.
“And again I’m not so sure that a race course is viable. How does that produce income for the city year-round? How does that basically fare with the university where you’re hearing screeching wheels and sounds of engines roaring? How does the community on that Chelsea end configure if they want that particular element there?
“We hadn’t gotten that far in the conversation. Is it something that’s different? Absolutely. Could it have potential to draw? Yes. But only twice a year. So in the interim, use of the amphitheaters or so on and so forth, is not a bad idea but at the same time we’re in the business of trying to get revenue for Bader since, you may not be aware, but we’re broke…
“There’s no money.”
RT 40: “There are a number of projects coming on-line that aren’t going to bring a lot of tax revenue necessarily, because of PILOTs [Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes programs].”
MFG: “There’s a delicate balance between utilizing PILOTs and not utilizing PILOTs. If you were to look at Jersey City fifteen years ago, it would look like Atlantic City in a sense because of the utilization of PILOTs
“If the PILOT is written and drafted correctly, the city can get a taxation from that. It’s just that we have not had the appropriate or right consultants or professionals writing those PILOTs that would have gotten us the benefits.
“When they’re done in favor of the developer, it’s truly an issue. I’m not opposed to incentivizing development, because I know that even now, where the land prices are at the lowest, we still don’t have an influx of folks running in here to actually develop.”
RT 40: “How will these new projects create jobs for local residents?”
MFG: “We understand that because casinos have basically been the [labor] market it hasn’t really prepared a lot of the locals to be candidates for some of these jobs. That’s why we’re creating a relationship with the building trades to get people into the trades earlier, so they can be prepared. And again, because of the industry, it never really produced anything but labor, workers of menial jobs.
“That’s why it’s important that we begin to utilize STEM programs in elementary school to have the young people that’s coming up behind some of the adults that are maybe educated out of that process to actually fill that gap moving forward.”
RT 40: “Are you concerned about the current environment with regard to immigration, and whether the casinos that are reopening will be able to hire sufficient employees under work visas?”
MFG: “I’ve heard that the new casinos are committed to making sure local people get those jobs first.”
RT 40: “Alright.”
MFG: “Which is very important because again whether it’s an immigration issue or not, I’m a firm believer that a young person that lives in the city that’s coming home from school should be the applicant to get that position first. When it comes to ICE and things of that nature, I oppose that because I believe that these people have a right to live in America.
“I also believe that they have a right to actually grow up and have a fair, equitable life like anyone else. But when it comes to the ‘unwanted’ right? If it’s a criminal, right? No one wants that, whether it’s an immigrant or a citizen. So we wouldn’t want to take some other country’s problems and issues but I’m not privy to say who those folks are because I’m not in the conversation as to who comes here or not.
“But America was based on the home for everyone. It’s supposed to be the melting pot of the world, and how we got to this point of talking about how people should not be coming here, again as an African American, this happens to be Black History Month, I didn’t come here through Ellis Island. I mean I came here in bondage. So even to have the conversation from someone whose lineage was forced here and then some who want to come here to make a better life—how do you juggle that?
“It’s the land of the free, home of the brave.”
RT 40: “What is your family’s story?”
MFG: “My family came to the Americas from Ghana, Ivory Coast. Settled in the Carolinas, Eastern Shore. My grandmother came in ‘58, worked in the Claridge, was a nanny for folks in Margate. That’s how Frank Gilliam became an Atlantic Citian.
“So that’s my history. But who am I to have any kind of ideology to say who can’t come here for improvement? I’ve never lived a third-world country where they’re run by a dictatorship. I can only imagine how that feels. Would I want to flee to have democracy? Of course. Forget about people’s color, culture. It’s based on the way that they were living. Were they living in dignity? Were they able to have civil liberties that any other human being was allowed to have? So I’m very adamant about keeping an open mind and open arms to whomever. Atlantic City is a melting pot.”
RT 40: “If not immigration, what are the casinos concerned about?
MFG: “Public safety, having us deal collectively with the opioid epidemic that most cities are facing.
“In Atlantic City it’s multiplied because it’s such a small area, only 48 blocks, so everything is condensed. You see more of it. A lot of the issues are dealing with some of the illegal rooming houses that bring that element in.
RT 40: “Is there a plan for that?”
MFG: “Most certainly. The plan is to alleviate those things on those blocks [the beach blocks]. For two reasons: One of the reasons is that in order for the city to add value to its land, you can’t have the most valuable area have Section Eight housing. That makes your real estate market upside down. The beach blocks are saturated with low-income housing.
RT 40: “But it’s not Section Eight. It’s rooming houses.”
MFG: “It could be that as well as Section Eight. It could be someone utilizing a voucher to stay there. It could be someone paying menial prices per room to stay there. But the point is you can’t have low-income housing next to the beach and boardwalk because that should be, and has to be, the most pristine real estate. If we’re going to turn the tide in Atlantic City, that has to be reversed.
“You have to begin to see million-dollar homes in those areas. It makes no sense to be able to walk across Albany Avenue and begin to see what the homes on the boardwalk and see what the homes look like north of the island and then when you come south…
“We have to make up that gap. The way to do that is to attack the problem that’s there now. We can’t just be punitive to these people. We have to be aware that there’s a social component to it, which I’m very aware of because my background is in social work. I do understand that there’s mental health issues, drug issues and things of that nature. That’s why it’s not going to be just a punitive approach. It has to be a holistic approach. That’s why I’m very eager and happy to be the mayor at this time because there is an appetite to help Atlantic City grow and prosper.
“CRDA—I thought I would be head-butting with them, but they’re wide open to helping the city. Now they’re putting the surplus property that’s outside of the tourism district up for auction. That’s something that we’ve been screaming for …
RT 40: “What about the stuff in the Tourism District?”
MFG: “You better believe it! And I have ideas for that. We shared ideas. I think we’ll see a lot more movement even from a standpoint of them being open to helping Mark Callazzo, Evan Sanchez and those guys getting Tennessee Avenue up and running.
“There’s a lot coming. It just has to be marketed correctly. The city has to begin to district itself in the manner where investors can come and tell exactly where the investment appetite is. You have developers and investors that are interested in developing around hospitals, so we have to create some sort of health district.
“You have people that are interested in developing around colleges and universities, so you have to create a university district. You have folks that at some point, when the legalization of cannabis comes to New Jersey, you have to figure out how we quarantine that. You have to have an adult district.”
RT 40: “What did you learn from your Nevada trip? [about legal cannabis]”
MFG: “Socially, [reform] decriminalized cannabis. That’s important for any urban center because there are so many lives that have been destroyed because they have gotten some kind of blemish for having marijuana.”
RT 40: “Should the licenses be given out in a way that reflects disproportionate incarceration rates for African-Americans for marijuana-related offenses?”
MFG: “Absolutely. It can’t just be something that rich Caucasians make another mint off of without having the ability of the persons that have suffered from it…
“There was a panel that spoke on that very point—making sure there’s adequate representation from those persons that have been punished for it. The other thing is truly the impact of economics. It costs taxpayers so much money to litigate someone for cannabis. The ends do not justify the means.
“Economically and socially there’s a benefit. But also from the pure profit, it was eye opening. They were six months into the legalization and $37 million came out of it. I would like Atlantic City to be in front of that. We need the revenue stream. Atlantic City would be ideal to be a host city for it, and naturally I’m going to lobby for more because the state still takes luxury, parking and room taxes from the city, which I don’t think is fair but lawmakers before me made that deal. But we have an ability to actually right a wrong by putting in some legislation that allows Atlantic City to get a true share of this.
“I also learned that in Vegas the casino industry has no appetite to want to host this [cannabis businesses] within their structure because of their regulatory and federal contacts, which in a sense is great for the city because now you begin to allow small businesses to come into the market to add that injection of ingenuity, job opportunity and revenue.
“The con of it was: I don’t want the City of Atlantic City to make the mistake that Vegas made. You have dispensaries that are designated where you can purchase, but there’s nowhere that’s designated for you to use what you purchased. I think Atlantic City can take advantage by creating a district that allows a hotel or boutique hotel or an adult district that builds in and around that particular industry. I don’t want people to come and buy and then leave.
“We want it to be a destination. We want you to be able to have the full experience. We want you to be able to go to a spa, sit and watch a game, sit in the lounge of a hotel and eat a gummy or whatever, because the world has to come off of this dense mindset, right?
“Because we are a state that has already opened up our minds to the utilization of the medicinal [marijuana]. It could help alleviate some of the opioid issues that Atlantic City has. I see it from a whole different paradigm. I know that Atlantic City has basically been the entity that regulated alcohol, we regulated legalized gaming and we should be the entity that is in position to regulate the adult usage of cannabis.”
RT 40: “How do you balance this program of making Atlantic City a live-work-play destination against the rights and needs of the people who already live here? Are you worried about gentrification?”
MFG: “I’m worried about everything that can harm the indigenous people of Atlantic City. I am one of those indigenous people. I’m talking about the neighborhoods and communities that still are living in squalor. I’m talking about the families that basically have to deal with the Marina District. I’m talking about building new adequate housing.
“We have Tennessee Green coming on board. We have the Boraie project that’s new housing, but we’re slated to talk to HMFA about how we address the needs of the community that lives here that have to live in housing that’s 55-60 years old. I think the city lost a great opportunity to rebuild housing after Sandy. Some of that was the punitive outlook that the former governor, Christie, had toward the city.”
“When it comes to taking care of and looking out for the native and residents of Atlantic City you couldn’t have a better person. I live here. I ride down the streets. I walk in neighborhoods where I know it has to be addressed. In my opinion, one of the biggest things I’m going to have to address is to figure out how we revamp and restructure Stanley Holmes Village. It’s an eyesore. It’s also a place where I think that residents and families should be living in better conditions.
“In order for Atlantic City to thrive thoroughly, the community that lives here has to feel the benefits and the business district has to come and meet in the center. Until that happens, Atlantic City will not thrive. It doesn’t matter how much we look at investing.”
RT 40: “Are you concerned that there are people who look at Atlantic City’s actual inhabitants as an obstacle?”
“Millennials really don’t look at living conditions as obstacles as much as you have that older mindset. You can find Millennials living in some of the most dicey spots. I think they find themselves liking the dicey areas. But my point is, I’m firm believer, we can walk down the street in Manhattan and not know if we’re rubbing shoulders with a billionaire or someone who’s washing dishes. So why do we need to carry a small-minded paradigm to Atlantic City that you can’t live and coexist among people that aren’t as fortunate as the next person?
“That’s always bothered me. Hoboken—They have the same demographics. It’s old buildings, myriad of people and folks more or less in my opinion valuing the diversity. But when it comes to Atlantic City, everyone tries to bring this mindset. It has to be all of this or none of that. I think that’s where I’m poised to bring some reason to all of that, because this is my home. This is where I got my education. This is where my children live, where my wife lives, where my children live. I’m going to use big business to play that role that they do everywhere else to help the community. I think we’ve lost that perspective but at the end of the day I’m happy to be the mayor of Atlantic City.”
RT 40: “What do you want to see in the South Inlet?”
“I want to see a cross-fill of River Walk, a cross-fill of Miami Beach, with an influx of high-end homes, whether it be second-home condominiums, mixed-use entertainment and eateries. It could be whatever our wildest dreams are. But it will never be anything unless the city places high value and a vision on that area. That only happens when we’re marketing what we have for the developer to come in and have the appetite and I think that’s beginning to happen as we speak.”