How do you redefine a city? It’s a daunting question, but one that Atlantic City, long viewed as a gathering place for the gambling and casino industry, faces amidst significant contraction and major casino closures in recent years.
In an attempt to rebuild itself, Atlantic County, N.J., which is home to Atlantic City, has invested in and built an initiative to drive investments in technology. The county is hoping to draw tech-focused startups from New York City down the coast to Atlantic City through an agency called the Atlantic County Improvement Authority.
“This very well could be the computer mecca of the East Coast. Absolutely,” says Max Slusher, economic development director for the authority. “We do view Atlantic City as being the perfect place where people can come and program, right on the beach, inexpensively.”
The county is hoping to attract companies from a few key industries. One is aviation, which includes drone manufacturing and testing. Atlantic county hopes to leverage the fact that it is home to the Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center (along with a proposed new aviation technical park) as a lure for other aviation tech companies and innovators.
The other industry targeted is computer programming and software development. New York City is a current hotbed for these companies, but Atlantic City could draw those organizations out of the Big Apple by offering a better quality of life and tax credits for high-tech firms that create at least nine jobs.
“Everybody talks about quality of life, but here in Atlantic County on the East Coast, we actually have it,” says Slusher.
The focus on aviation, startups and tech are the result of an extensive economic development strategy and plan for the county that was released in 2015. The county is also interested in drawing other advanced manufacturing and life sciences companies.
“The world economy has caught up with Atlantic County and we have the opportunity to do some amazing things when it comes to technology and research,” says Slusher.
It is notable, though, that while the county sees its future outside of the gambling industry, those glitzy casinos along the boardwalk are still by far the largest economic driver.
“Atlantic City still has seven casino hotels, employs about 21,000 casino workers, and it still exists as the largest generator of employment here in Atlantic County,” says Slusher.
Other localities are undertaking similar economic stimulus efforts to diversify and strengthen their local economies. In Virginia, the state is doubling down on cybersecurity talent and positioning itself as a leader in developing future cybersecurity professionals, according to a report from StateTech last year. And like Atlantic County, Virginia is interested in incubating drone or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the state through its Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership on the Virginia Tech campus.
But the locality that Slusher feels Atlantic County is modeling itself most after is Reno, Nev., which, like Atlantic City, has a strong history in casinos and the gambling industry.
“They were a tourism, casino-dependent area and now they’re wildly successful with their economic development efforts,” he says.