Neil Young and Crazy Horse played at Borgata to benefit Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
The police patrolled the empty Boardwalk during the storm.
John Palmieri and Liza Cartmell are elevating Atlantic Cityâ€™s profile and public perception.
It was a metaphor for everything exasperating about the latest attempt to resurrect Atlantic City’s image. The photos were everywhere—from national magazines to network TV—a small, remote segment of the Boardwalk, already in disrepair, washed away in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
The two people most responsible for the resurrection of Atlantic City’s tourism, shopping and casino district, Liza Cartmell and John Palmieri, did a collective combination of cringe and slow burn. Cartmell is the president of the Atlantic City Alliance, the nonprofit created in 2011 whose imprimatur is to market the “new” Atlantic City using $30 million a year from casino proceeds and private industry. Palmieri was appointed by Governor Chris Christie in 2011 as the executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to spend the tax money it gets from Atlantic City’s casinos wisely.
Cartmell and Palmieri had a tough sell before Sandy, but in the wake of the misinformation about the damage caused by the storm—there was a little flooding, but nothing along the lines of the devastation that so many believed had occurred—the effort to make this season a success was daunting. They both spoke with Philadelphia Style about the storm, the state of tourism in AC, and the return of the Miss America Pageant.
How are you getting the word out that, as your slogan goes, people can still “Do AC”?
LIZA CARTMELL: We were getting lots of phone calls that would start with, “Oh, are you open? Isn’t the Boardwalk destroyed?” We knew we had to counter that right off. We had to immediately say we were open for business and were ready both right away and for the summer season.
JOHN PALMIERI: Correcting the narrative has been an important thing. We met intentionally with media outlets to correct the false point of view. Branding of the city as a tourism destination is something that requires effort. The city has always taken a hit on certain levels, but our responsibility, from the governor’s point of view, is to make sure it has a clean, safe environment, more ambassadors spreading the word, and that we do everything from better landscaping to tending the beaches to bringing in as much entertainment and shopping as possible.
And bringing back the Miss America Pageant was important. Current Miss America Mallory Hagan is already doing a radio commercial for Atlantic City.
JP: Miss America is a huge boost to the morale of the city. The economy is slack and casino gaming is stressed, so I can’t imagine it happening at a better time. The governor had discovered the contract it had with Las Vegas was at an end, so he had the lieutenant governor make contact immediately with pageant ownership. They realized it was a part of New Jersey and should come back here.
LC: We can make [the Miss America Pageant] relevant again, not just a memory. It will be in September, just like before, to extend the season. But it fits into what we want to do to promote the city broadly, which is to have signature events that are fun and free all year long.
So who are you targeting? Who comes to Atlantic City now and who do you expect will?
LC: We’re finding we have been successful in Baltimore and New York. [People in those cities] recognize [that Atlantic City is] about more than gaming and has all these positive activities—the beach, shopping, dining, events. The interesting thing is that Philadelphia is a tougher sell. People there already have strongly formed perceptions, whether they are current or not. In Philly, we just have to try much harder.
JP: People are coming from Baltimore and even Boston and New York to stay a couple of days, something that Philadelphians [don’t do as much]. We’re not worried about the Pennsylvania casinos, because we are looking for more than just the casino-only folks. If we get them down here, we know we can show them something new.
So what is your timeline? When will you know you have succeeded?
JP: We are moving in the right direction. I have been here a year, and if we can say we have a five-year window, we are already down one year. The governor has used a lot of political capital, so if things haven’t changed in three years, we certainly will not have succeeded, and any criticism we will have then will be warranted.
LC: Well, I grew up going to Sea Bright in Monmouth County and that beach is devastated. We have to take advantage [of the fact] that, in Atlantic City, things are open and there are a lot of things to do. This is the time.
photography by michael persico; donald kravitz/getty images (band); stan honda/afp/getty images (boardwalk)