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Tom Carver is a long-time New Jersey state official—including a stint as commissioner of labor and head of the Casino Control Commission. Currently, he’s the executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), and was a featured speaker last month at a regional economic conference in Atlantic City co-sponsored by the Trenton-based PlanSmart NJ, a statewide civic action group, and Richard Stockton College. Real Estate New Jersey editor Eric C. Peterson caught up with him afterwards….

RENJ: What’s CRDA’s role?

CARVER: We are a statewide economic development agency, funded by 1.25% of gross casino revenue annually, which comes to about $60 million a year. We have been able to leverage that into a variety of other funds to address problems like transportation, housing and development, and we’re looking for other governmental partners in communities around Atlantic City and in the region to do developments that would allow for additional housing and appropriate planning of transportation. Frankly, the goal is intelligent, sustained growth.

RENJ: What’s been the major accomplishment of CRDA to date?

CARVER: Frankly, it’s been a stable governmental institution in Atlantic City, because we’ve had a series of changes, a series of scandals, a series of elections over the years that has been like a roller coaster ride governmentally. Through that we’ve been able to do things like build more housing units per capita than any other city in the United States. We have built such commercial enterprises as The Walk [shopping center], which very few people thought would be successful. People thought, and some still do, that nobody would shop in those areas because it was off the boardwalk. The reality is those stores are the most successful in their entire chains.

RENJ: In your remarks earlier today, you talked about the region being the growth driver for the entire state….

CARVER: This casino industry and the growth it has advanced is the driving economic force of New Jersey. Nowhere else is anybody talking about up to $20 billion of private investment. Nowhere else is anybody talking about 40,000 new jobs. The state is talking about, over a period of time, hopefully adding 40,000 jobs. Well, we’re going to add that here, if what is planned takes place.

I’ll tell you how new this is, and how unique: During our transportation and housing analysis, the groups that work for us went to the Department of Labor and said, “we need some statistical background so we can plan and predict what’s going to happen.” They didn’t have these figures. They’ve never seen this before. Their figures predicted that we would have slow, continued growth.

That’s not what we’ve talking about here. We’re talking about an influx of 40,000 people. We’ve had a growth of 40,000 jobs in the first 30 years [since the inception of casinos], so you can see the accelerated pace we’re talking about. So we’ve had to draw up the figures we need for our own planning analysis, and give them to the Department of Labor…which I used to run, by the way.

RENJ: What are some of challenges?

CARVER: The challenges are that we have not done some of these things for the first 30 years. Like most places, we haven’t had a common vision, a common plan. We are in New Jersey, so we have home rule. You can’t easily implement solutions that are regionalized by nature. People don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to hear “amalgamation of towns and services.”

But the reality is we’re going to have to think in these terms. The other thing is that we have failed, in my judgment, to face the fact that to be successful in the state, to keep the state operating, to keep people being able to get to and from work, we may have to have some economic sacrifice in terms of increased taxes or increased fees. We’re deeply in debt, we don’t have a transportation trust fund that’s funded properly. Without that, we can’t go anywhere.

RENJ: If you were in Trenton right now, and in a responsible position, what’s your game plan?

CARVER: When I was commissioner of labor, I used to make speeches about raising the gas tax. We have to raise the gas tax…it’s as simple as that. It’s stupid and foolish not to. If we had raised the gas tax when McGreevey was in office—let’s assume we added 25 cents to it, people wouldn’t even know they were paying a 25-cent tax today, with the price of gas.

We either solve our economic situation or we’re not going to succeed. New Jersey will continue to lose people, jobs, investment, or we do what has to be done, whether that is Gov. Corzine’s plan or a version of that plan. The alternative is to cut spending. We’re going to cut spending. But that doesn’t solve our problem, because that doesn’t let us go where we have to go. It doesn’t allow us to do the things that have to be done in terms of financing.

RENJ: We’re sitting here in Atlantic City, overlooking a vacant lot…it used to be the Sands. It’s cleared, it’s all ready to go. Quick reaction: What does that mean to you?

CARVER: Progress. It means that there is a private company out there with enough confidence in Atlantic City and in New Jersey, and in this industry, to be able to put up billions of dollars to take part in the process. It’s a continuation of the growth we’re going to have to have to succeed.

[Note: Since this interview, Pinnacle Entertainment, owner and developer of the former Sands site, indicated that it was putting its proposed $2-billion casino resort on hold for now, citing general credit market conditions]

RENJ: Two, three, five years from now…what are your goals for CRDA?

CARVER: To be in a position to affect the changes we’re talking about. To be in a position to participate in the things we’re trying to begin. And to continue in terms of having the resources and willpower to improve and expand on the economic development activities, and some of the social goals that have been expressed.

The opportunities are here—we’re going to need a lot of housing! And frankly, we don’t have all the economics in place, but if and when this mess that has been created [in government] turns itself around, the need is there. I think there’ll be opportunities here for people to build housing, make good money and add to the economy.

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