The first aviation facility in the world to be called an "airport" helped develop Atlantic City as a casino mecca, and now the resort town is turning to Bader Field to help relieve some of its crushing debt.
Bader Field has been closed for nearly a decade as the city's fortunes crashed. Now, the cash-starved gambling resort is looking to the former airport to help save it by putting it back on the market — at what could be a 90-percent-off sale.
Atlantic City put the 143-acre site up for sale in 2008, hoping to attract as many as three new casinos on a tract of land considered one of the most desirable coastal locations on the entire U.S. east coast. That was right after the city's casino market began to contract due to competition from casinos in neighboring Pennsylvania.
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But few foresaw how bad things would get — and how quickly. Atlantic City's casino revenue has fallen from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $2.56 billion last year.
When Bader Field was first put up for sale, the city expected it to sell for at least $1 billion. Pennsylvania-based casino company Penn National offered $800 million, but the city envisioned selling it for $1.5 billion.
"We had $800 million in hand," City Council President Marty Small said. "That was a missed opportunity."
The city thought it could get a better price, and was uneasy with the degree of control Penn National would have had over the future development of the site. Ultimately, no one bought the land, Atlantic City's market crashed, and the site spouted a decade's worth of weeds. A handful of concerts and community events were held there, but not much else.
Now, the city is trying again.
Mayor Don Guardian said Atlantic City will set a minimum bid of $150 million — 90 percent less than the city thought it could get in 2008. His one caveat is that any money brought in by the sale be applied directly to Atlantic City's $437 million debt — a liability that is a prime reason the state is trying to take over the resort's finances and assets.
The City Council is expected to approve listing Bader Field for sale at its meeting Wednesday night.
Guardian and Small said no one has approached them about acquiring the land, although Revel owner Glenn Straub has expressed interest in a multi-use development that would include reopening it as an airport for charter jet flights to bring high-rollers to the resort, and using part of it for X-Games-type sporting events.
He said Tuesday he remains interested, though not necessarily at that price. Straub said he may offer to act as a "stalking horse" by offering an initial bid to set the floor for an auction, which he did as the first step to acquiring the shuttered Revel from bankruptcy court last year.
"We'll bid what we believe it's worth to us," Straub said.
The city reached a deal with a New Jersey firm for temporary recreation uses at the site, but Guardian said the contract had not yet been executed.
Bader Field, which closed in September 2006 after 96 years of aviation use, gave the world the term "airport" when a local reporter used the word in a 1919 article.
In 1910, it was the scene of the first attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air, 17 years before Charles Lindbergh would succeed. Walter Wellmann lifted off in the dirigible "America," only to ditch off Cape Hatteras, N.C., when a storm hit shortly afterward.
Entertainers bound for boardwalk ballrooms, business travelers and even U.S. presidents regularly flew in and out of Bader Field, but it remained the domain of small planes and private pilots; bigger jets landed at Atlantic City International Airport about 9 miles away.
Bader Field is where the Civil Air Patrol was founded shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. But a series of fatal plane crashes soured city officials on its use. The control tower was shut down in 1989 and it stopped selling fuel in 1993. Just before the shutdown, fewer than 30 planes a day used it.