They were only two miles apart, but the two press conferences in Atlantic City on Thursday were far from close. At least when it came to their subjects.
In the morning, Gov. Chris Christie, state Senate President Steve Sweeney, and a throng of business and nonprofit leaders broke ground on a new beachfront development.
“This project truly demonstrates that we’ve turned the corner in our commitment to revitalize Atlantic City,” said Christie, referencing the project now under construction that will house a Stockton University campus and the headquarters of South Jersey Gas.
Officials expect the “Gateway Project,” where 500 students will live and 200 gas company employees will work, to generate $220 million in local investment and more than $1 million in annual tax revenue.
Christie was taking something of a victory lap Thursday, praising his administration for its efforts to revitalize Atlantic City.
In November, the Republican took control of the down-and-out gambling town under a new law — allowed state officials to break union contracts and sell city property in order to balance the municipal budget.
In his remarks, Christie characterized the takeover as a positive step for the city, ticking off a list of recent victories: the tax settlement with Borgata; the credit rating upgrade; the news that the Hard Rock was moving into the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal; and Thursday’s groundbreaking.
“This city is an extraordinary asset, both for our state and for the entire region,” Christie said. “And it was neglected. It was neglected by lots of people.”
A few hours later, a few miles up the beach, a different kind of press conference took place at City Hall.
A coalition of groups turned out to express opposition to the state takeover. Some speakers lambasted state officials for cutting the pay and benefits of the city’s police and firefighters.
Atlantic City residents hold up signs during a press conference held in City Hall in opposition to the state takeover and the sale of the public water system to a private utility. (Anthony Smedile for NewsWorks
But the purpose of this press conference was to speak out against a potential sale of Atlantic City’s water utility to a private company, a money-saving move that’s been whispered about for months.
“We have to hold on to our public resources, we have to hold on to our public assets, we have to hold on to our public workers, and yes, dear God, we have to serve the public,” said Cornell William Brooks, president of the national NAACP.
Brooks and others — including representatives of the AFL-CIO, the Atlantic City firefighters union, Food and Water Watch, and the local NAACP — worried that water prices could jump and water quality could sink if the state sold the city’s water authority.
“We understand that water rights are civil rights, and civil rights are human rights,” Brooks said.
A state spokesman said New Jersey officials had not yet decided whether to sell the water authority.
But, under the Atlantic City takeover law, they are free to do so as early as next month.