ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Friends have taught Larry Sherlock two main things about Atlantic City: Bally's, the Taj Mahal and the Borgata give out nice comps. And, don't venture out onto Pacific or Atlantic avenues, especially at night.
The retiree and his wife love Atlantic City enough to make the seven-hour drive from Hampton, Va., twice a month. But when they're here, they experience only a tiny slice of the resort, sticking to the casinos and the Boardwalk, areas where they feel safe.
People like Sherlock, a retired manufacturing manager, are at the heart of a redevelopment plan expected to be approved Wednesday by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the newly empowered state agency tasked with carrying out Gov. Chris Christie's overhaul plans for the nation's second-largest gambling resort.
The goal is simple: to make Atlantic City safer, cleaner and more inviting.
"We've identified dozens of interesting ideas to improve visitation, improve the convention atmosphere, the Boardwalk, and entertainment venues," said John Palmieri, executive director of the CRDA. "The visitor experience is very important."
Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs are at stake. For the past five years, Atlantic City's casino revenue has been plunging due to an ever-growing number of casinos in neighboring states, and the continued sluggish economy.
Lawmakers in the far more populous northern part of New Jersey have long clamored for slot machines and table games at horse tracks in their part of the state, including the struggling Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, just outside New York City. Thus far, Christie has resisted those calls, promising to give Atlantic City five years to get its act together before revisiting the question of whether it deserves to continue the monopoly on gambling that the state's Constitution gives it.
To do that, Christie got state legislators to create a new tourism district in Atlantic City consisting of the casinos, the Boardwalk, shopping districts and the former Bader Field airport site, and put the CRDA in charge of overseeing it. The plan the agency is expected to approve Wednesday addresses quality of life issues for visitors and residents alike, calling for new development in some areas, spruced up store facades, removal of anti-crime shutters on businesses, stepped-up sanitation and other initiatives.
Already, workers riding mini-vacuum trucks are scurrying up and down Atlantic Avenue, sucking trash from the gutter and trying to keep things cleaner than they have been in recent years. Flowers are being planted, signs erected giving better directions to attractions, and a new parking garage is being built to accommodate shoppers drawn to The Walk and its successful outlet stores.
That area, considered the main gateway to Atlantic City, has been given a total makeover, with glittering spires, a landscaped median strip, and gleaming new stores on either side of the end of the Atlantic City Expressway that put an inviting face on the first impression many visitors get here. CRDA hopes to duplicate that kind of success in other areas that are not as tourist-friendly.
Atlantic and Pacific avenues, the two main downtown streets, will get particular attention.
"The first two streets off the Boardwalk I don't go to, because I was told not to, especially at night," Sherlock said. "I hope they do make it safe there. If I have to go anywhere around here, I go by car."
He and his wife have been visiting Atlantic City for 20 years, and haven't experienced anything worse than the occasional panhandler begging for change or cigarettes on the Boardwalk. But he says it would be nice to feel as at-ease on the downtown streets as he does on the Boardwalk.
Palmieri and his agency declined to reveal specific details of the plan until after it is presented and approved on Wednesday. But in a series of public hearings in recent months, several proposals have been discussed at length.
The agency has envisioned putting stores or restaurants on the ground floor of casino parking garages along Pacific Avenue, the oceanfront street, and even encouraging patio dining along the street, which is now lined with cash-for-gold pawn shops, strip clubs, discount motels and run-down buildings.
It also wants businesses along Atlantic Avenue, two blocks inland, to remove anti-crime shutters from their storefronts, and has considered locating state offices in a dense cluster on the street to create more activity in certain spots.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC