Atlantic City Bets On An Open Container Law To Reverse The City’s (Mis)fortunes

Food & Drink

Amid hopes that American lawmakers will permanently extend the liberal alcohol policies they enacted during coronavirus shut-down orders, the mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, has taken matters into his own hands … by allowing visitors to the beach resort town to hold open containers of alcohol in theirs. This week, Mayor Marty Small issued a six-month executive order to permit geographically unrestricted alcohol consumption on the famous Boardwalk and in the entertainment districts known as Historic Gardner’s Basin and the Orange Loop. He hopes the measure, which takes effect Friday morning and requires drinkers to carry their drinks in plastic cups branded by the Atlantic City business where they bought it, will help the city’s businesses recover more quickly from severe COVID-related financial losses.

“We encourage people to go in and out of all businesses,” he says. “They should be able to buy a drink, go to the boardwalk and go on to the next destination.”

Developer Mark Callazzo agrees wholeheartedly. With a restaurant, beer hall, music venue/nightclub and chocolate-themed bar along the beach block of Tennessee Avenue in the developing Orange Loop, the edict supports his vision for revitalizing the formerly neglected neighborhood. After suffering financially during the recent peak of New Jersey’s pandemic, he’s thrilled to welcome locals and tourists back in time for the summer season — beers, wine and cocktails in hand.

“My plan was to have this concentration of amenities so going hand in hand with that would be bringing your cocktail from Made to the show at Rhythm & Spirits,” he says, naming two of his venues. “The businesses in the Orange Loop have been working together to make this area a destination. Instead of just saying let’s go to The Iron Room for dinner this makes it more cohesive of an area.”

The Orange Loop, Boardwalk and Gardner’s Basin can each be easily traversed but while strolling between them is theoretically possible, locals usually advise hopping on the shuttle to avoid the derelict blocks that interrupt them. Though last April The Press of Atlantic City reported that municipal crime rates had fallen for each of the previous 26 years, the slowly gentrifying city still fights a perception of violence. That said, police – who support the open-container rule – have stepped up their presence in the newly popular parts of town and will not, according to the mayor, tolerate drunk and disorderly behavior or any other criminal offense.

“At the end of day we’re encouraging responsible adults to do responsible adult things,” Small says.

“Atlantic City is a unique place,” adds Callazzo. “Liquor licenses are 24 hours a day and it is more of an adult town than most other places. So it’s a natural fit.”

City Council has previously approved the move, and both men say they haven’t heard any opposition to the law. Casinos, continuing to break from a long-standing tradition of ignoring the city’s many plights to focus on their own bottom lines, are banding with small business owners to applaud the change, as well.

On Monday, Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and senior vice president of Eastern regional operations for Tropicana Atlantic City’s parent company, told The Press of AC, “Hopefully, as we go through this process, people that make decisions can see that we handle it properly. We do it the right way, and we follow all the rules, so that we can make it permanent in the future. It’s great for our community.”

The paper notes the casino industry, along with others including Republican mayoral candidate and former Alcohol Beverage Control Board chairman Thomas Forkin, has pushed state legislators to legalize open containers in the city for years. Normally, the state would have to approve such a measure. But with a bill stalled in a General Assembly committee and coronavirus halting most unrelated legislative action, Small declared a state of emergency in March that gave him more power and ultimately allowed him to issue the decree.

Pointing to top urban tourist destinations like New Orleans, Las Vegas, Memphis and Austin that allow open containers on the streets, advocates hope state lawmakers will make the order permanent when they return to Trenton in the fall.

With the order set to expire in November, Orange Loop developer Pat Fasano wants legislators to understand that beach and party goers want to move from place to place at their own pace, without waiting for everyone in their group to finish their drink. Couple that with consumers’ COVID-era desire to spread out outside and a decades-old city legacy of false economic restarts, creating a spectacular tourism district becomes a necessity, not a luxury.

Fasano, who shares Callazzo’s enthusiasm to cooperate with his competitors, is already doing his part. He owns two relatively new restaurants and has bought 20 city properties. The next piece of a four-phase play-and-stay project opens in July as a container park with concessions, a beach volleyball court, stages, bars and music. Then he’ll build a boutique hotel followed by a container hotel and hopefully a drive-in movie theater, all in the next few years.

“The ability to move around with drinks makes it like that Bourbon Street feel,” he says. “Atlantic City can be that full entertainment destination. A perfect playground.”

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