Op-Ed: Chris Howard, the new face of the CRDA

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We all know the problems. To date, I can count on one hand how many locals agree the $2 million being spent on the renovation of unused bathrooms in Boardwalk Hall is a good idea, or at the least, where we should start. I can also count on one hand how many local people like the CRDA. I had the opportunity in January to meet with Chris Howard, the new Executive Director of the CRDA. I found a bright man hoping to bring change.

The idea behind the CRDA remains noble. It has been twisted by politics and politicians who continue to fail the city and state on so many levels. The current system isn’t working, and it needs re-direction, or closure. They are my feelings.

Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian with CRDA Executive Director Chris Howard at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Mark Calazzo’s 1 N Boston Avenue project, the Parkside.

I also have a unilateral belief millennials can do all they think they can do. I am the father of two millennials and I believe in them. We ALL believe in our own children. Therefore it is only logical that I can extrapolate that to others in the same generation. Let’s hope they can fix what our generation seems to have mucked up.

When I met Chris Howard, I did not place the burden of the past failures of the CRDA, nor the system, on this young man’s shoulders.

Instead, I placed the burden of hope. I hope the existing system does not crush him. I hope he can implement change, and I hope those on the CRDA board learn from their past mistakes.

At 32 years of age, Chris has walked into a job he chose to take. How he got the job is purely speculative, and I don’t care how he got it, or what others say. We are not going to change that.

I care what he thinks, and thinks about. Moreover, I also know he has been vilified by his youth, and the past failures of the CRDA in general, and not his performance. Yes, the system that placed him there is suspect. But, let’s not make him suspect. He is just beginning and might be the change we need.

The future of AC and the world belongs to his generation. There is great effort underway to attract the millennials in town, both as residents and visitors. Imagine if they actually want to live here. Chris has moved here, and loves it…. really loves it… That’s a start!

Now, imagine if everyone starts talking to each other, instead of at each other. Just think if we cross generational and political lines with a feeling of empathy and understanding instead of pointing fingers. Imagine if we were all on the same page.

What I would I like to see: a re-invented CRDA where the local people have input. Put the locals who work there in charge, and put the board in the hands of the local mayor’s association. They know us, all of us, because they are us, and also live with our problems. But, in the end, it is not our system to design. Maybe he can shake it up from the inside…. wow, imagine….. maybe he can make it work!

There is no reason the CRDA can’t be part of local cooperation. Seemingly, we all want the same end, and they seem to be moving in that direction.

CRDA’s Chris Howard with Geoff Rosenberger at an Atlantic City ribbon-cutting ceremony last year.

The CRDA is calling for public input staring with a hearing this coming Monday March 13 in the Convention Center. I will be in DC but want my thoughts heard. We all want everyone’s thoughts heard so we can make progress. Below are parts of an outline I handed Chris at our meeting with some of my thoughts:

Premise 1 – The state of New Jersey is now in charge of the assets, books, contracts, and future of Atlantic City. This is suspect at best, since 1984 the CRDA,has been the de facto planning and spending arm of New Jersey in Atlantic City for over 30 years…long enough to identify failure.

Premise 2 – To outside eyes, the city is unsafe, unsound, and unqualified to run itself.

Premise 3 – The state continues to draw huge amounts of money from Atlantic City, and sees no obligation in helping her recover from a city they helped devastate.

Premise 4 – Doing more of what we’ve been doing just contributes more to what has been going on and what has morphed into a battle for power, money, and assets.

Conclusion – It’s time to step out of the box and do something completely differently. Further, this fits the national mood.

In the spirit of creating systems that work, we want to be responsible for our own improvement. That’s always been how people got ahead.

Go public with plans for the city which include individual entrepreneurs.

  1. Rebuild the Southeast inlet with facades from the old Atlantic City. Call for boutique hotels, B&B’s, and restaurant/bar/entertainment options. Recreate the old Atlantic City as a destination in itself. Entertainment options belong everywhere. Visitors and locals alike are very nostalgic for the old AC. Architectural marvels were everywhere. Let’s recreate them and, in so doing, build a great stage for filming movies set in the past.
  2. Develop land in unison, with individual options open to sale to individual entrepreneurs. Keep one theme, but don’t keep one final landlord. Let the entrepreneur buy his/her future, further investing in AC.
  3. Encourage a new funding source. Make it an arm of AC Devco or CRDA, focused on the individual investor, charitable foundations, and retirement funds for local unions and groups seeking a reliable return on their investments by spreading the risk and upping the ante with local investment. Take it public. All are encouraged to buy in and fund a smaller guy.
  4. Rebrand Bader Field as Bader Island and create a standing World’s Fair, Epcot style. Encourage diplomatic trade missions and display the best from around the world in everything from food to cultural exhibits including science and technology (a theme successful in the old AC with displays by GM, GE, Heinz, etc).

We must challenge both the CRDA and the state as needed allies for change and cooperation as partners. Propose different ways the CRDA can function more efficiently in and around the economically devastated Atlantic County, and how state oversight can best be utilized. Teach them to listen and communicate.

  1. Propose that the mayor’s association and board of freeholders be placed in charge of the CRDA’s direction and future money allocation. These folks are all stakeholders, and accountable. We are all directly linked to AC’s success.
  2. Propose the Southeast Inlet be developed for the small guy and Bader Field be left in AC’s hands.
  3. Propose the CRDA pay taxes on other lands it owns, as partners in the city.

We can identify four groups whose contributions to America are well represented throughout the city, and as groups who – nationally – are maligned and present great investment opportunities both as catalysts for change, and as examples of what we can do right.

Veterans: Many are now lost between different departments for things like health, housing, work training, and jobs. They are all handled by different departments and getting nothing done. Mix it up by doing it ourselves. Use San Francisco’s Delancey Street, successful since 1971,  as a model. It started with $1,000 and 4 people and now is a leading example of a self help community.

LGBTQ: Gays remain on the front lines of changing mores as to our value within the America Community. Create America’s first National LGBT history museum here in AC – give gays the reason to rally, and a reason to visit, and a reason to fund.

Immigrants, and their stories, have not changed since the beginning of our nation. The only thing that has changed is who we hate now. Call for an investment as representative of the immigrant microcosm that is Atlantic City and America. Create a shining example of hope everywhere displaying the best of cultures from around the world. Ask the local immigrants to elevate the contributions to our American Culture to a national level and invite participation from around the world. Build a replica of the Statue of Liberty and turn Bader Field into a standing display from around the world.

African American: Kentucky Ave and the curb can be rebuilt and the CRDA already has a study showing its great potential (Polaris Group). Include an entertainment museum with a section devoted to black influence on the performing arts, and particularly here in AC. (Historically, the Northside neighborhood continued to thrive through the initial decline of AC until the middle class left town with the advent of gambling.)

Atlantic City was built by empowering individual dreamers into a cohesive whole which resulted in the whole town being a carnival built by dreamers. Each neighborhood had different draws. Each dreamer had different wallets and investment potential.

Timing is perfect for dreams to be born again. Waiting for huge developments that don’t come can be replaced by empowering the visions that already exist.

This gives rise to the opportunity to:

Redeem and reinvent the CRDA in the eyes of many locals and outsiders alike. Make them a working partner by creating the end use buyers with smaller opportunities.

Empower the CRDA or AC Devco as a place where we can all join together in a self propelling form of investment through the public offering of stock for re-investment into AC. Group funding of projects is not a new concept, though not utilized here.

Create a favorable vision for Bader Field, instead of more land banking, or outright theft and sale by the state. Give it a purpose. Rename it Bader Island, and incorporate the idea of a standing World’s Fair/Epcot.

Have Triax57 film the whole process and progress. Become the place people want to watch, and you become the place they want to visit. Further, with funding, this becomes a working studio and living apprenticeship program.

We can create positive headlines bringing people to town.

The CRDA is in a position to shine the light on this, pull all the competing forces together. Eliminate politics as usual by lessening the strength of politicians with transparency and people’s involvement. Lessen the impact of bureaucrats by streamlining development requirements into functioning realities. Lead the Urban League with the beta model.

So, Chris, here’s to you! Figure out how to fix AC, and prove my confidence in millennials right. You can win others over, one by one, if we see results.  That’s your challenge… not  me… not others…. you currently are key. Can you implement change and point direction?  So far fighting about what you are paid hasn’t gotten us anywhere. Following your lead, might!

We’re all watching, and hoping. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Listen to what you feel you have to do. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime! Let’s give Chris a chance to do good things, and good things might come!

Geoff Rosenberger, author of Geoff’s Page, is a periodic contributor. He can be reached by email.

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