You think it was crazy to take this job?
The man in charge of giving Atlantic City a makeover has asked himself that question plenty of times, mulling over the life-changing twist of fate that happened on a September Sunday night nearly three years ago, when he stopped by a table at one of his Cape May hotel restaurants to ask the nice-looking couple if their dessert was okay.
“There’s just this side of me that says, ‘Gee whiz, life would be just fine if you didn’t do it,’” Curtis Bashaw says. “Here comes this governor who stays at my hotel on a fluke, and I talk to him on a fluke in lieu of watching The Sopranos. Because I thought it’s not every day that a governor stays in your hotel, and I should see how his dessert is.”
His customers were James McGreevey, the new young governor of New Jersey, and his wife, Dina. Of course, the world didn’t know yet — maybe even Jim McGreevey didn’t really know yet — that, to paraphrase his stunning resignation speech, his truth was that he was a gay American. He was still just a precocious politician and family man, one who joked with the innkeeper that he was surprised a restaurant as good as the Ebbitt Room existed in New Jersey.
That made Curtis Bashaw forget entirely about The Sopranos, and got him talking to the guv about how even the political leader of the state could hold such a low opinion of New Jersey, and how great the state really was, and how the Jersey Shore should be marketed better. Bashaw was 42 at the time and appeared 10 years younger, a thin man with angular good looks, slightly moppish hair, and a relentlessly sunny spirit — he says Gee whiz a lot — that leads friends to call him “Opie.”
Bashaw had grown up headed for a career in the ministry, attended the conservative-Christian Wheaton College in Illinois, but then somehow veered off to the Wharton School for an MBA. The day he was accepted to Wharton, he got a bank loan to start a $3 million renovation of a dilapidated Cape May boardinghouse that he turned into an upscale hotel called the Virginia, where the McGreeveys were dining. In 2002, he reopened Cape May’s historic Congress Hall, once owned by his grandfather’s church organization, as a chic seaside hotel.
The McGreeveys came back several months later for a quick getaway at Congress Hall, and the governor and Bashaw talked again, over breakfast. Not long after that, McGreevey asked Bashaw if he’d like to run the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which, by collecting 1.25 percent of every dollar the Atlantic City casino companies make (and portions of parking fees and hotel room taxes), is one of the richest governmental entities in the state, a veritable slush fund of economic development. Though the authority now spreads its money all over New Jersey, its primary responsibility is pushing Atlantic City forward on its fitful three-decade climb from slum-by-the-sea to city reborn.