By Andrea Karen Hammer
Like many distressed cities attempting to revive former glory or re-imagine a prosperous future, Atlantic City, NJ, is in a state of flux.
During the last three decades, the casino industry has largely defined Atlantic City as a major employer and attraction. However, after five closings that created a ghost-town effect, the city was pockmarked with vacant and decaying buildings, which photographer Brian Rose captured in his book Atlantic City.
Signs of Rebounding: Positive Economic Indicators
Struggling to re-establish stability, Atlantic City started to show signs of rebounding in 2017. According to the South Jersey Economic Review from Stockton University’s William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy, the local economy continued this positive trend in 2018. With the help of two new casinos, Hard Rock and Ocean Resort, an additional 4,600 jobs resulted in an increase of 3.6%, along with re-branding “North Beach” as an entertainment district.
Other projects contributed to job growth as well as construction, restaurant and bar activity. Some of these include the AC Devco Gateway Project comprising Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus, which houses approximately 500 and draws nearly 1,400 for classes. At the other end of the boardwalk, the Showboat hotel reopened as a non-gambling property with special events ranging from food festivals to fashion shows, along with a plan to convert hotel rooms into rental units.
Authentic City Partners: Tennessee Avenue Renaissance
The Tennessee Avenue Renaissance has also created a boomerang effect, with a growing network of new businesses and restaurants expanding onto St. James Place and New York Avenue. Propelling these real-estate development projects through Authentic City Partners, natives Evan Sanchez and Zenith Shah are committed to improving their neighbors’ lives. Developing a model for the rest of Atlantic City and other distressed towns, they have created the “Orange Loop” in a hat tip to the Monopoly board game.
Some of the businesses shaping the Orange Loop’s purpose-driven mission include The Leadership Studio AC, which under the guidance of co-founders Kathy Whitmore and Allie Nunzi offers yoga classes, training and leadership development programs. Along with friend Loryn Simonsen, Sanchez and Shah operated Hayday Coffee—an ode to recapturing Atlantic City’s heyday—until a recent closing because of a mutual decision between landlord and Hayday to move in different directions.
High Road While Bouncing Back: Orange Loop Development
Instantly taking the high road and expressing genuine “gratitude” to their distraught supporters, the trio quickly bounced back with cafe “pop-ups” in the Orange Loop and active plans to re-open the popular gathering place.
“We’re rewarded every day when we see and meet people who are a part of the Orange Loop community—whether they’ve lived here for years or just visited the Loop for the first time. The challenges of the Orange Loop are the challenges of Atlantic City and all cities, for that matter.
“We strongly believe that if we focus on building community, connecting dots and celebrating what’s good about our city, we can make meaningful change,” Sanchez said.
After studying at Columbia University in New York, serving as the president and board member of the Columbia Venture Community and helping to start the digital ordering restaurant service Olo, he decided to return home and contribute to Atlantic City’s renaissance. Sanchez helped start ThisIsAC, a grassroots community movement to promote positivity. He also joined the board of the Atlantic City Arts Foundation, a non-profit with arts and cultural programs enriching the quality of life for residents and visitors.
Commitment to Hometown: Decision to Create Positive Change
Zenith Shah, who lived in the Atlantic City area since age 2 when his parents left India for a better life in America, learned the hospitality business by working in his family’s hotels and motels. After studying at Drexel University in Philadelphia and working at BlackRock Financial, an asset management firm, he held leadership positions for more than a decade with the Portfolio Compliance Group.
“Atlantic City has always been home, and our families are still in Atlantic City and Atlantic County. We loved our time and experiences in bigger cities, but we’ve always felt a pull to help realize the great potential of Atlantic City. When we had the opportunity to be a small part of positive change we jumped at it,” he said.
Keys to Success: Collaboration and Diversity
Although concerned about mixing business and friendship, their mutual respect and shared vision for Atlantic City has compelled them to build on collaboration and diversity as keys to success.
“Atlantic City is filled with so many great people doing so many great things, but at times we’re off in our worlds, so the efforts are diffused. When we come together, whether it’s working collaboratively in a few beach blocks or if it’s working together for a specific cause, we’re much more effective. We’ve always believed that building a strong team with a shared vision is the key to building a thriving Atlantic City,” Sanchez said.
“There are people from around the world who have come to Atlantic City and made it their home—in large part because of the casino industry. We love exploring different parts of the city, especially through its international restaurants,” Shah added.
“We strongly believe that we’re a better city because there are so many different people from around the world here, and if we lean into that diversity, it’ll help to move us forward.”
Along with plans to re-open Hayday, other current Orange Loop projects include creating new apartments, bringing in new commercial tenants and helping to build Cardinal Restaurant & Hotel, a New American restaurant with a boutique hotel, with Chef Michael and Tom Brennan.
“Leadership for us is about shaping vision, building a team and keeping the two aligned,” Sanchez said. “It’s about solving problems, taking responsibility when things don’t go great and giving the credit to the team when they do.”