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Atlantic City, N.J. • Gov. Chris Christie is taking a victory lap in Atlantic City, saying his hard-fought takeover of the struggling gambling resort is starting to pay off with projects like a new university campus and a major casino investment.
But the national head of the NAACP and local officials of the civil rights organization are wary of the state's intentions and are particularly afraid the city's water system will fall into private hands.
The Republican governor attended the groundbreaking Thursday of the $220 million complex that will house a satellite campus of Stockton University and the corporate headquarters of South Jersey Gas.
It comes on the heels of Hard Rock International's purchase of the shuttered Trump Taj Mahal casino, with plans to reopen it next year.
Christie said the takeover, enacted last November with the support of the state's Democratic-controlled Legislature, is starting to put the city on an austerity diet that is attracting new investment.
But the Stockton project was in the works before the takeover. Hard Rock chairman Jim Allen would not weigh in on the debate about what credit Christie should get for Atlantic City's successes, but he added his company would not have bought the Taj Mahal had the city filed for bankruptcy, which was a real possibility before the takeover.
And at least some of the city's recovery is due more to market factors than legislative action: Five casinos have closed since 2014, making it easier for the surviving seven to turn a profit with less competition.
"This project truly demonstrates that we've turned the corner in our efforts to turn around Atlantic City," Christie said at the Stockton groundbreaking. "Now what you're seeing is what happens when people are vigilant stewards."
The takeover gives the state control over Atlantic City's assets and most of its major decision-making power, including the right to sell off properties like the municipal utilities authority. Democratic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, the city's NAACP branch president, cited fears that changes to the water system by unelected officials could result in the type of danger to public health that occurred in Flint, Michigan, when the city's drinking water source was switched, leading to widespread lead contamination. That was NAACP national president Cornell Brooks' main topic as well.
"Water rights are civil rights, and civil rights are human rights," Brooks said at a City Hall press conference two hours after Christie spoke. "This is not a money problem. This is a democracy problem. Flint, Michigan, is a moral parable about the peril of giving up control of your water."
G. Bruce Ward, executive director of the utilities authority, predicted a private owner would want to ensure a 20 percent profit margin for shareholders. That, he said, would cause rates to increase by 200 percent to 300 percent over current levels.
The Stockton project is the culmination of a long, and initially botched, process of establishing an urban satellite campus in Atlantic City.
In 2014, Stockton bought the former Showboat casino, hoping to establish its campus there. But the university failed to resolve a thicket of conflicting legal restrictions on how the property could be used and then sold it to developer Glenn Straub, who also owns the shuttered Revel casino.
But that deal fell apart, and Stockton then sold the building to Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein, who re-opened it as a non-gambling hotel with provisions to train Stockton students in the hotel and hospitality trades.