When Paul Steel's dad opened Steel's Fudge on the Boardwalk, Woodrow Wilson was president.
Now 88 years later, he and his son George Steel are worried that a glitzy new casino construction project would mean their small business is taken away from them.
Like other small business owners on the 1600 block of the Boardwalk, they recently received notice the city was contemplating designating 24 acres around the former Sands Hotel & Casino as "in need of redevelopment."
And like the others, they worried that this notice, coupled with what they considered unacceptably low offers for their business, could lead to eminent domain.
"Are you going to sell?" Steel, imagined being asked, "or are we going to hit you over the head with eminent domain?"
At its Oct. 3 meeting, City Council passed a resolution as new business asking the Planning Board to investigate and decide if three blocks around the proposed Pinnacle Atlantic City casino needed redevelopment.
The designation will be considered at the Dec. 19 Planning Board meeting, city Planning Director William Crane said. The board typically approves the designation.
The 24-acre tract is massive. On the beach block, it includes all the land between Indiana and Kentucky avenues. The next block in it includes land bordered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Pacific, Indiana and Atlantic avenues.
The glitzy casino project zone could uproot a sampling of the resort's typical low-end tourist attractions. It includes five cash-for-gold stores, four T-shirt shops and "Peanut World," advertising $0.75 hot dogs.
Crane said the designation would allow the city to tailor zoning and planning legislation to the site. The city similarly drafted an ordinance this spring allowing the Revel Entertainment project in the South Inlet to soar above previous height restrictions.
The redevelopment designation also opens the door to possible eminent domain. Crane said this would give Pinnacle additional leverage as it negotiates for surrounding properties.
Casinos are ineligible for tax incentives tied to redevelopment, said City Councilman Bruce Ward, who helped draft the ordinance.
It is unclear what Pinnacle's intentions are.
Kim Townsend, chief executive officer of Pinnacle Atlantic City, was unable to respond by deadline Tuesday.
Dan Lee, Pinnacle's chairman and chief executive officer, has repeatedly said in public forums that Pinnacle already has enough land to build its proposed megaresort.
Acting Mayor William Marsh said casino officials had told him they were not interested in acquiring the businesses that front on Atlantic Avenue. And Crane said he understood that Pinnacle was not interested in either Indiana Avenue's La Renaissance condominium complex nor City Councilman John J. Schultz's 1616 Pacific Ave. building.
Furthermore, none of the land across Pacific Avenue is zoned for casinos.
City Councilmembers said they generally oppose using eminent domain except with speculators who own vacant land.
Pinnacle owns almost all of the land on the former Sand's block through Ace Gaming LLC, its local corporate name. Public records also indicate it has made recent purchases elsewhere in the zone under two Pinnacle subsidiaries.
In 2006, AREP Boardwalk Properties LLC spent $61.3 million on land owned by Caesars Atlantic City's subsidiaries, according to deeds registered with Atlantic County. Another Pinnacle entity, PSW Properties LLC, spent $6.585 million last year on a shuttered restaurant and a disused apartment complex.
City tax records also indicate the AREP also owns two Boardwalk stores on the 1600 block and a small tract off of Mt. Vernon Place. PSW owns other land on Mt. Vernon. It is not clear how much was paid for these properties.
The potentially affected properties on the Boardwalk's 1600 block stand out and look worn partially because they were not part of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority's recent multimillion-dollar façade makeover. City tax records indicate Boardwalk barons Schiff Enterprises own eight of the 16 properties.
The privately owned companies complained that Pinnacle offered far too little. Vasilios Kakoulides said he paid $800,000 for Bill's Gyros when he bought the restaurant for 20 years ago. Pinnacle offered him $780,000.
He does not want to sell regardless. "There is no price," he said. "If I lose this, the next day I drop dead."
The Steels said they could sell, but $900,000 was far too little.
"Why wasn't the Sand's considered a blighted area" when it was open, Pier 21 Gifts owner Todd Lovitz asked. "It was a run-down hotel."
"Someone should take City Hall," he added, leaning against a rack of $3.99 tourist T-shirts. "It's an ugly building and it's definitely in a blighted area."
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