BY CLYDE HUGHES, AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY — When the Renaissance Plaza first opened in the early 2000, it was hailed as a beacon for Atlantic City central city community starved for economical local shopping and convenience for those needing medical care and other services.
More than a decade later, many see the shopping complex as an anchor weighing down Atlantic City as people return to the East Coast entertainment capital with the opening of two new casinos.
Renaissance Plaza is physically within a mile of the newly opened Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and the Ocean Resort Casino on the city’s iconic Boardwalk, but light years away from its aura and limelight.
Today, Atlantic City Ward 3 councilman Kaleem Shabazz calls it an eyesore that is a stain on coastal entertainment city struggling to make a comeback. Small crowds of people loiter around the shopping complex, some begging for change, others to wash car windshields for dollars, and others for no particular purpose at all.
The only question is if there’s the political will to do it,” Shabazz said. “I’m an optimist. It won’t be easy. It’s not like on TV where it will be solved in 30 minutes and the show is over. We can use the same template. This is going to take more (money) but it can be done.”
According to the U.S. Justice Department, it was once one of the operating areas of the former notorious Dirty Block street gang, that distributed heroin into the local neighborhood and other parts of Atlantic City.
Concerns for safety have been brought by some who frequent the shopping center, where only a handful of business still remain, including a Save-A-Lot grocery store, Little Caesars Pizza and a Family Dollar store.
“Our initial excitement has turned into despair,” Shabazz said. “Four supermarkets have come and gone because they could not sustain themselves because of the loss and theft. The community is still a little distressed because they felt the shops should have been facing Kentucky Avenue, which was a black mecca years ago.
“Women don’t want to go there and that’s understandable because people are asking for money and all that kind of thing. It discourages consumers. More than that, it discourages businesses that might want to invest,” he continued.
Shabazz, called a news conference Tuesday (Aug. 28) to bring attention to Renaissance Plaza and to publicly call on the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to make a financial commitment to improving the plaza. Shabazz admitted that he did not need a press conference to alert the public to the dreadful shape of the shopping center.
“It’s not like I’ve unmasked some great big secret,” Shabazz told Front Runner New Jersey.com the day after his news conference. “Renaissance Plaza is in deplorable condition. We know that. As the councilperson in that district, it’s my duty to lead the charge and try to make it better.
“My goal (with the news conference) is three-fold. One was to raise the issue. Two was to engage CRDA and three, to rally the community to move forward and get this done. You don’t have to be a sociologist to walk by there and see that it’s not conductive to development. That doesn’t take any discussion. It drags down the image of the city. It’s bad for development. It’s a drag on people, even if they are not residents. It’s a determent,” he added.
Shabazz said the plaza is in such poor condition that it lost two popular national fast food establishments during its time – a McDonald’s and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“It may have happened before but I can’t think of any (shopping center) that has ever lost both a McDonald’s and KFC,” Shabazz said. “The consensus is that (Renaissance Plaza) has to get better; whatever we have to do. New businesses won’t come if they don’t see a change. If businesses are making money and feel safe, they’re going to stay. If they don’t feel safe and are not making money, they will leave. We have to correct that.”
Shabazz said he wants to push to open a sub police station at the plaza to increase security and discourage the illegal loitering and other activities. He said private money will be needed to improve architecture, refurbish and clean up the shopping center.
“If we just did that, it would be a marked improvement over what we have now,” he said.
CRDA did not respond to a request from Front Runner New Jersey.com to comment on Shabazz’s news conference or its future plans for Renaissance Plaza. Shabazz said, though, he plans on attending an upcoming CRDA meeting to personally appeal to the body.
The councilman and president of the Atlantic City Branch of the NAACP said a template is already available with the redevelopment of the Harold R. Brown Memorial Park nearby, better known to local resident’s as simply Brown’s Park.
In 2015, Shabazz said the location had earned the nickname “Needles Park,” because of the proliferation of discarded needles left by drug users. That year, the park gained national attention in a negative way when a man knocked out a woman at the play area while a friend recorded the incident and posted it on YouTube.
While the incident was a black eye for the city, it sparked a rallying of public and private groups. The result was a $1.5 million investment that transformed the park, which reopened last year with new playground equipment gates. Police provided safety that allowed children to return to the park, churches to conduct services there and to host events like wedding receptions and movie nights.
“We put together a working group made up of police and city government and started to talk about how we can turn it around,” Shabazz said “The skeptics said you’ll never turn it around and we turned it around. You can now walk over to the park. It’s gated and well-maintained. The police patrol it.”
Shabazz admitted that it will cost more than $1.5 million to turn around Renaissance Plaza but believes it can be done much like Brown’s Park.
“The only question is if there’s the political will to do it,” Shabazz said. “I’m an optimist. It won’t be easy. It’s not like on TV where it will be solved in 30 minutes and the show is over. We can use the same template. This is going to take more (money) but it can be done.”
Photo 1: Entrance sign outside of Renaissance Plaza. Taken by Meredith Winner, CEO of Mer-Made Photography.
Photo 2: Broken sign in front of Little Caesar’s Pizza in Renaissance Plaza. Taken by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography.
Photo 3: Entrance to Brown’s Park, near Renaissance Plaza. Taken by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography.