In 1881, eight years before the completion of the Eiffel Tower, a real estate entrepreneur named James Lafferty built a six-story high wooden elephant on a deserted stretch of barrier island beach just south of Atlantic City, in southern New Jersey.
Lafferty’s goal was simple. He owned a lot of nearby land and he needed a gimmick to attract potential buyers. The gimmick was Lucy, the Margate Elephant.
Ninety years later, Lucy was a tattered, wasting-away wreck, when two local ladies undertook her restoration. They raised $25,000 with cookies and bake sales to move the building from the ground it stood on behind a local bar to a public park next to a hot dog stand. One day shortly afterward, they approached a local advertising man and said “We need advertising help.” “What for,” he responded. “To save Lucy,” they said.
They went on to describe how they had managed to get Lucy listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a $62,000 matching federal grant. But let the ad man, my uncle, tell the story.
“So here are these two very nice ladies, naïve as hell, thinking that we could do some ads that would sell enough cookies to get them their sixty-two thousand dollars.”
“I said, ‘Ladies, you aren’t the Girl Scouts. I don’t think even the Girl Scouts could sell enough cookies here to raise that kind of money. But I have heard of an idea that might do it for you. I heard it in New York. It’s called ‘The Connecticut Plan’.
“It seems that a private school in Connecticut needed to renovate a building, but they didn’t have the funds. They had plenty of local connections, but no money. So some clever parent came up with the idea of approaching a friendly bank for a loan, having each parent family co-sign the loan for a thousand dollars and agree to pay the annual interest until the loan was repaid by the school. The school got the money they needed. The kids got a renovated school. And, the parents got a tax deduction for the interest they paid and the warm feeling that they’d done something good for the school. So, let’s do the same thing here.
“We’ll find a friendly bank. I just happen to have a new client—friends who have started a new bank. We’ll appeal to their civic pride and need to become better known. When they say 'Yes,' we’ll throw a cocktail party for some local movers and shakers that we can ask to co-sign the loan. You’ll get your matching grant money in one fell swoop and not only that, but we’ll see if we can’t get some contributions from local labor unions and materials donations to hold costs down and do the whole thing right.
“They were flabbergasted. But we did it in a couple of months, and Lucy’s restoration was underway. Forty years later, it sits in Margate, N.J. today as a National Historic Landmark and tourist attraction that’s visited every year by people from all over the world.”
This all took place in the early 1970s when Atlantic City had hit rock bottom. As viewers of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire know, this wasn’t the first time; Atlantic City’s roller coaster economics have been a topic of fascination since its founding. But this time, a perfect storm of negative events had caused its convention and tourism business to collapse and casinos were only a dream on the horizon. The first casino referendum failed, but the second one passed. The campaign promised the moon to local supporters, but for nearly forty years casino owners focused mainly on delivering point-to-point visitors to their fortresses, which were consciously built to diminish the natural attractions of the island.
Now, the local casino industry is in a state of disarray due to increased competition, the tourist business outside of the casinos is virtually non-existent, Atlantic City’s population has fallen, the inner-city demographics are particularly challenging, and the city budget and infrastructure are in need of a major overhaul. So what’s to be done?
The original Convention Hall provided a stable expansion of business into seasonal, shoulder seasons. A new Convention Hall and shopping area continued that trend, while the old Hall became an entertainment center. But, they’ve all been challenged by the fading of the surrounding urban environment.
However, there are some “big time” ideas for revitalization. Relocation of portions of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey into a prime Atlantic City location would provide an important mid-city “anchor” and bring professionals and students to town—some of whom might stay to become a part of the city’s revitalization. A half-dozen or so casinos still will remain to help stabilize the City’s economy. Growth of a nearby regional airport and federal aviation research center also can play a significant future role, and the sand, sea, and Boardwalk still retain their primal appeal for nearby metropolitan masses.
Lucy was saved by local people animated by an idea borrowed from another place. Could that work now for Atlantic City? City fathers and New Jersey politicians first have to man up. Nobody wants to vacation or relax in a war zone. Public safety and reduced crime are of paramount importance and must be attended to. How was the old Times Square rescued? How were Baltimore and San Antonio revived? HBO’s Boardwalk Empire may be enjoyable entertainment but let’s not confuse fiction with fact—no blue-chip investor is going to invest today in a corrupt environment.
But with the support of enlightened New Jersey State and Atlantic County government, a new mayor and business-oriented City Council in place, and several former casino buildings available for redevelopment, well-heeled investors might take another look and new generations of visitors might discover why old ones called Atlantic City “the World’s Playground”. Elephants learn from long memories, I’m told.
Kevin Fortuna is the author of The Dunning Man (Lavender Ink Press, October 2014). His story Weddings and Burials is a finalist for the prestigious The New Guard Machigonne Fiction Contest. He obtained a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Georgetown University, where he graduated summa cum laude. He is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the Quicksall Medal for Writing, a Fellowship in Fiction at the Prague Summer Writers Workshop and a Full Fellowship in Fiction at the University of New Orleans, where he received his MFA. Fortuna lives in Cold Spring, New York.
Harry Sweeney is a rewired – not retired -- advertising executive and member of the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame. He was born and raised in Atlantic City, headed Dorland Advertising for the last six (1971-76) of its thirty years as the City’s agency, and continues to reside in the area.
Read more about Kevin Fortuna's The Dunning Man here
And, take a stroll down Boardwalk Empire memory lane with Popdust's gallery of the best pics from all five glorious seasons....