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Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian in July 2020.

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ATLANTIC CITY - The Southern New Jersey Chamber of Commerce is offering a series of panel discussions highlighting economic development in South Jersey's counties.  

A Nov. 15 discussion focused on Cape May and Atlantic counties, with Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian and Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. as part of the panel.  

The mayors were joined by Joe Molineaux, who leads Cape May County’s economic development efforts, and Lauren H. Moore Jr., president of the Atlantic County Economic Alliance. 

There was an early acknowledgment that Cape May County’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism. Gillian stressed the importance of Ocean City’s brand as 'America’s Greatest Family Resort.' It was clear that the concept of a brand was critical to each of the county’s communities that offer visitors a variety of different experiences. 

Gillian’s presentation was organized around four trends that he said are visible from the experience in Ocean City in recent years. 

More people are staying in Ocean City, and they are prolonging their visits. While this trend results in more money being spent in the local economy, it also results in a need for more city services. This observation fits with county data that shows record levels of occupancy tax collections. 

For Gillian, part of the reason for the uptick in visitors is that the pandemic has accelerated a focus on shorter travel by car for vacations.  

“We have built an economy around a seven-day cycle, which is being disrupted,” he said. “Thursday is our new Friday and businesses have to adapt,” he added. 

One side effect of the growing number of visitors who are electing nearby vacation destinations is a rise in the number of cars and the congestion they bring with them.  

For Gillian, a critical task in the resort community is finding ways that move people around the island without a need for using their cars.  

“It is one of our great challenges to get people safely around town,” he said. 

His last trend spoke to the ever-changing nature of tourism in the county.  

“People want experiences on vacation,” he said, adding they want a variety of things to choose from while visiting the shore and they want things that keep their kids entertained.  

Gillian spoke of surf lessons, parasailing, ecotourism, winery trails, and more. 

During his talk, Gillian, whose family has offered entertainment through an amusement park on the city’s boardwalk for decades, spoke of a persistent problem - the inability to hire sufficient levels of seasonal help.  

He praised the foreign work visa program, spoke disparagingly of the “American kid’s work ethic,” and said the $15 per hour minimum wage was going to have a negative impact on small businesses. 

Molineaux moved the focus of the discussion away from tourism to a need for diversification in the county’s economy. While noting that travel, hospitality, and tourism are the drivers of the county’s economy, Molineaux chose to focus on other economic development opportunities, including aviation. 

Speaking of the county’s efforts at the Cape May County Airport, Molineaux described the economic development focus on unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones.  

The county’s partnership with the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA) has led to new business opportunities at the airport where a series of new buildings designed as airport hangers are already fully leased. 

Molineaux frequently referenced what he terms “the coastal shift.” He spoke of “the great migration of 2020” in which people in large numbers abandoned urban areas for more space.  

Covid accelerated a shift that Molineaux said was already occurring. More people are buying homes in Cape May County or visiting and staying longer. Remote work opportunities support this migration away from urban areas. People are now able to work where they want to live. 

The Atlantic County portion of the panel discussion added emphasis to many of the same themes. Moore spoke of a need to “isolate” the local economy from downturns in the hospitality and gaming businesses.  

He, too, pointed to an “aviation cluster” as a critical effort at diversifying the economy. He described plans for an Aviation Innovation Hub that takes advantage of assets like the Atlantic City Airport and the FAA Center. 

Small acknowledged that Atlantic City had a different set of problems from Ocean City, “but we also have solutions,” he added.  

He spoke of the continued expansion of Stockton University's presence in Atlantic City, plans for hospital expansion, and the potential financial benefits of the emerging marijuana industry. 

The panelists presented a positive forward vision for business attraction and development in an economy that prizes its strong presence as a tourist destination while recognizing a need for greater diversity that might bring more balance to the region’s economic life. 

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com. 

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