Michael McMenamin remembers when downtown Atlantic City had nothing to lure visitors off the Boardwalk and away from the casinos, just blighted stretches of abandoned warehouses, a glass company, a junkyard, bus parking lots, a couple of bars.
"That area was off the beaten track for a long time," said McMenamin, a police lieutenant and native of the New Jersey city.
When he retires from the force this spring after 25 years, McMenamin will try his hand at retail, opening a pretzel shop with his wife, Monica, on those once forlorn vacant blocks.
Despite the area's rough past, the couple jumped at the chance to bet on downtown. Why? It's not the same place it once was.
McMenamin's new businesses, an Auntie Anne's pretzel franchise and a newsstand and convenience shop next door, will open by Memorial Day in The Walk, a $76 million outlet center developed by Cordish Co. of Baltimore.
A block from the Boardwalk, The Walk is one of several new retail centers credited with spurring a renaissance of downtown Atlantic City.
With 45 stores open, The Walk spans eight city blocks along Michigan and Atlantic avenues and includes such national brands as Polo, Coach and Guess promoting factory outlet prices.
The Walk, which links the Boardwalk and the city's 7-year-old convention center, has been so successful that New Jersey development officials have chosen Cordish to double its size with new shops and restaurants, this time with condominiums and offices above the retail outlets.
"The Walk has been an incredibly successful attraction ... as well as an economic development tool," said Curtis J. Bashaw, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which invests gambling revenue in statewide economic development projects and owns the downtown site.
"It has created jobs, improved the streetscape, helped the downtown feel safer and helped generate a buzz about Atlantic City. "
Cordish reached an agreement this month with the development authority to privately finance and develop the next $76 million phase, five city blocks west of Michigan Avenue, which is to open by late summer next year.
The Walk outlet center "has literally transformed the city," said Gary A. Block, a Cordish vice president who oversees the project. "The reputation of the city was one of gambling and gaming. With the introduction of our center, it is being looked at as a family destination, with more to do."
In a downtown where retail has been limited to Boardwalk T-shirt shops, neighborhood clothing and electronics stores, and a handful of high-end casino jewelers and furriers, other developers and property owners are following close behind Cordish.
They hope to cash in on what Las Vegas learned years ago: Tourists who flock to gambling hot spots and resort towns will shop, eat out and spend plenty.
The Quarter, a $275 million, 220,000-square-foot Havana-themed retail and entertainment center, opened in the fall at the Tropicana Casino and Resort. And the Pier at Caesars, which is under construction, will add 320,000 square feet of upscale retail space to a former pier mall.
The new development is boosting Atlantic City's image, officials said.
"For years, we had been labeled as just a gambling town. ... There was nowhere else to go," said Atlantic City Mayor Lorenzo Langford.
The new retail presence "has helped redefine who we are as a city. We certainly are much more versatile in terms of the things we offer."
The 350,000-square-foot first phase of The Walk, which took two years to complete and opened in August, has shown the potential in a city visited by 37 million tourists a year.
It is fully leased, with 15 tenants still to open, and averages sales of $400 per square foot, outpacing the $200-per-square-foot average sales of a typical outdoor strip mall.
100 percent leased
"The fact that it is 100 percent leased is a great sign," said Anita Kramer, director of retail development for Urban Land Institute in Washington.
Like the Atlantic City project, many urban revitalization projects are relying on a mix of uses, including housing and offices, Kramer said.
Developers are appealing to people who want to be able to live, shop and work within walking distance. People who work in the offices would help business at the stores, she said.
At least two other developers, including Columbia's Rouse Co., considered developing The Walk's 15-acre site more than a decade ago. But those prospects fell through.
Since then, Atlantic City's landscape has been undergoing a transformation, helped in part by the opening in July 2003 of the $1.1 billion Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, the first casino-hotel to open in Atlantic City since the Trump Taj Mahal in 1990.
The Borgata, a joint venture of Las Vegas casino companies Boyd Gaming Corp. and MGM Mirage, has been successful in luring new - and younger - customers to Atlantic City.