Atlantic County has failed to hire a director for a planned million-dollar development corporation, a setback for a wider plan to steer the sluggish regional economy away from an unhealthy dependence on low-wage casino industry jobs.
Even after a substantial search this spring and summer, no candidates from outside South Jersey could be drawn in to run the development corp. Instead, Max Slusher, the Atlantic County Improvement Authority’s (ACIA) economic development head, will perform double duty in the role for an interim period, the county’s chief of staff Howard Kyle said in an interview Monday.
Although the non-profit development corporation, which should have about $1.2 million when it is fully funded, found candidates for the executive director gig, one turned it down for a better-paid alternative, and another withdrew, apparently because they couldn’t quite be persuaded to move to Atlantic County, Kyle said.
Low local salaries and difficulties attracting workers to the county were both issues that were highlighted in a report by Austin, Texas-based consultants Angelou Economics that was commissioned by the ACIA and published a year ago. That report, which said the county should establish a development corporation as a top priority, was critical of the county’s lopsided employment.
One in five jobs in the county is with a casino, according to recent data. When the Trump Taj Mahal closes this month, Atlantic County’s employment will fall below 2011 levels.
Under the new development plans, outlined in the Angelou Economics report (which you can read here), the focus will be on attracting a variety of new businesses that employ 100-200 people, Kyle said, so that the county avoids having employment too tied to one company or sector.
Kyle did not want to say he was disappointed the group failed to hire an executive director. “My whole perspective is, if this were easy it would have been done 30 years ago,” he said. “I accept the fact that this is hard. If you are not totally committed to get something done in this area, it’s never going to happen.”
One other challenge is that the state provides incentives to businesses in Atlantic City, but not so many for Atlantic County. The city is constrained by the geography of Absecon Island and it is pressed for space, while the county has plenty of room for new development. Kyle said he and “some others” will meet on Tuesday with “some people from the state” to try and get them to broaden their thinking to the whole of Atlantic County. Kyle declined to give any details about the meeting, saying it was “informal”.
“The old paradigm used to be if you fix Atlantic City, you fix Atlantic County. That doesn’t apply anymore,” he said, adding, “We need a regional-first economic development, so our perspective now is we fix Atlantic County and in effect you’ll be fixing Atlantic City.”
The Atlantic County Development Corporation will have its first board meeting on Oct. 11, Kyle said. The entity, which received a donation of office space from the Hamilton Mall, along with donations of architectural services and furniture for renovation work, is funded by $500,000 a year for five years from the Atlantic County Utilities Authority. Kyle hopes that with additional contributions from government and businesses, it will reach its goal of about $1.2 million a year.
“We’re committed to this, we’re going to make this happen,” Kyle said.