Making the News

Philadelphia Daily News

Originally Published:Saturday, April 25, 2009

A.C.'s forgotten airport
Bader plans abandoned as gambling town struggles

By Jason Nark
Philadelphia Daily News

ON A CLEAR night, the gleaming towers of Atlantic City casinos never looked as vibrant and alive as they did from 1,000 feet up, inside the cockpit of a plane approaching Bader Field.

Bader, a small airport that operated on a 142-acre parcel in Atlantic City's back bay for almost a century before closing in 2006, is practically in walking distance of the casinos, and pilots say it was like flying into a living postcard on nearly every landing.

"It was gorgeous," said Bill Dunn, vice president of Local Airport Advocacy for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). "It was always an amazing experience."

Atlantic City's lights still sparkle but the prospect of extending that postcard image to Bader Field - a redevelopment that officials believed would forever change the future of the city - has faded along with the gambling town's economic picture.

"We had thought there would be some development there sooner than what we currently have on our plate," said Kevin Hall, press secretary for Atlantic City's mayor, Lorenzo Langford. "Everything kind of stalled."

The city-owned property has a June 30 deadline for potential developers to submit requests for proposals on Bader Field. No one bid on the property when it went out for bid last fall for the first time.

If not for the rusty hangars, motorists speeding past Bader Field on the Atlantic City Expressway would barely notice they were passing one of the nation's first aviation facilities officially called an airport.

The only development at Bader Field since it closed in September 2006 has been the steady force of nature and vandals: Weeds push up through cracks in the tarmac and chopped-up cars and shattered clam and mussel shells dot the runways. Just beyond the airport's fence, the now-closed Surf baseball stadium sits in limbo as well.

If not for the worst economic losing streak to hit this city since legal casinos arrived in 1978, motorists would probably soon see an altered skyline.

Officials had envisioned a skyline that began a quarter-mile from the boardwalk with new casinos and condo towers sprouting from a Bader Field flush with trendy restaurants and boutiques. If not that vision, they thought they would at least see construction equipment by now.

At one point, the land was valued at more than $1 billion, and casino analysts say the property still has all the makings of a sure winner when the economy rebounds.

"To put it in perspective, it's huge," said Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, an Atlantic City-area research and analysis firm. "You've got a very small place here [in Atlantic City], and it's very difficult for any development to get done. Here, you have waterfront and highway access, all together in one location. In terms of its future, it could change the face of Atlantic City."

Casinos are seeing record-breaking drops in revenue almost monthly, thanks to the crippled economy, and one official said Atlantic City "misread" how Pennsylvania casinos would impact business.

"The situation in Pennsylvania has had a marked effect on us," said Thomas Carver, executive director of New Jersey's Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. "Thank God Philadelphia didn't open yet, " he said, referring to the two casinos planned for the city.

Potential developers who once salivated for wide-open space in Atlantic City have closed their wallets until the odds improve.

New casinos proposed for Atlantic City - the MGM-Mirage in the Marina, and projects by Pinnacle and Revel closer to the boardwalk - have been delayed by the economy.

Meanwhile, Pinnacle's chief executive officer suggested last month during a conference call with reporters that developing Bader Field could change the face of Atlantic City in a bad way, namely by drawing traffic away from its famous Boardwalk.

"They have now extended the deadline because nobody put in a response to the request for proposals," CEO Daniel R. Lee said. "But as long as they are mucking around with Bader Field, you would be insane to build on the Boardwalk."

Bader Field's possible effect on the Boardwalk has become an issue between Mayor Langford and his opponent in the mayoral primary, City Councilman Marty Small, Hall said.

Small could not be reached, but Carver of the CRDA said the threat of three new casinos on Bader Field spread a little "paranoia" through some of the casinos in town.

"I think the more forward-looking executives at the casinos accept that Bader Field is coming," he said.

The casinos, and the tourists they attracted, hastened Bader Field's demise, as the newer and larger Atlantic City International Airport took control of the resort's incoming and outgoing flights during the last 30 years.

Dunn, of the AOPA, says Bader still had a small but steady stream of daily flights in its later years. The city, the AOPA believes, purposely neglected the airport's runways and taxiways to get the property on the market.

"They created a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.

Now, after almost three years of inactivity on the site, Dunn says a few planes coming in would still be better than nothing.

"If it were open today, it would be used. The city wanted no part of it, though," he said.

Carl David, a third-generation art dealer in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, titled his recent memoir "Bader Field" as a tribute to the airstrip where he spent hundreds of hours flying with his father in their twin-engine Aztec.

Bader Field was the last place Carl David saw his father alive, and even today he gets emotional when his car stops at the light on West End Avenue near the airfield.

"One thing was certain," David writes in the book. "At some point in the future this place would never look the same." *


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