EHT targets West A.C. strip as zone for redevelopment: The Press of Atlantic City NJ, 1/11/07

By Martin DeAngelis

Official wheels have started turning again on turning West Atlantic City into a redevelopment zone.

The [Egg Harbor] Township Committee agreed Wednesday to assign the Planning Board to formally study whether the narrow strip of the township is an area that needs to be redeveloped.

Most local officials have left little doubt that they think at least parts of West Atlantic City need major changes, and help, particularly after police in late November found the bodies of four women left dead behind the row of low-rent motels lining much of the north side of the Black Horse Pike in the area.

But state rules prescribe the steps a local government has to take to create a formal redevelopment zone, which gives officials broad powers over the area — including, ultimately, the authority under eminent domain to take private property by buying out its owners.

The first step is a study by professional planners of whether the area qualifies for such treatment under state criteria, and the governing body's action authorized the Planning Board to put its planners on that job.

When a reporter asked how early in the game the process is, one of the board's planners answered this way: “The game just started,” said Stuart Wiser of Remington Vernick & Walberg. “We just had the coin toss.”

And given the pace at which this game is usually played, Wiser told township officials that it will probably be at least August before the Planning Board can finish all the rest of the steps it needs to create a formal redevelopment plan for the area.

The study will investigate the condition of the entire West Atlantic City section — from the Atlantic City border to the Pleasantville border — Wiser said. But most township leaders have also made it clear that their major concern is the north side of the highway and the aging motels that, they argue, draw drug users and dealers, prostitutes and other small-time criminals to the blighted strip.

All four of the victims found dead in November had been arrested on prostitution-related charges, and all had high levels of drugs or alcohol in their bodies when they died, officials have said.

Mayor Sonny McCullough said last week that getting West Atlantic City into redevelopment is one of his highest priorities for this year. But the township has been down this road before, with redevelopment studies going back to at least 1998.

The state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved a $10 million plan in 2001 to let the township buy up and knock down the motels, but CRDA officials said later that they weren't able to get financial commitments from the casinos to do that. The same agency then approved $3 million for that mission last year, but the mayor — who announced last week that he's running for the state Senate — argues that money isn't enough to do the job.

The Press of Atlantic City NJ: http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com