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Jersey Shore Towns Begin to Open Up — Cautiously: How Ready Are They?


Sustained by tourism, many Shore communities have seen off past crises. What’s in store for them in a summer season overshadowed by the pandemic? And, what are the stakes?

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Full story link – HERE.

By Andrew S. Lewis

New Jersey’s beach towns prepare for a summer season like no other.

For the bulk of the 41 municipalities stitched up and down the Atlantic coast, from Sea Bright to Cape May Point, the 15 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day are crucial to the survival of their economies. And not just for the towns themselves — nearly half of the state’s $46.4 billion in tourism spending is generated by the four counties that encompass the Jersey Shore.

Beach and Sand

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Statewide, travel spending for the first four months of 2020 has dropped by 87%, compared to last year, according to the U.S. Travel Association and Tourism Economics. In a report released Thursday, the state projects that 2020 will see tourism spending decline by about a third from 2019. With an economic window as narrow as that of the Jersey Shore’s, many town mayors have reached the critical moment in which they must figure how to begin reopening in order to salvage the livelihoods of seasonal businesses without risking the lives of residents and visitors.

On Tuesday afternoon, after weeks of regular discussions with the governor’s office, the Cape May County-Wide Recovery Initiative, a coalition of freeholders, mayors and business leaders, submitted a formal reopening plan to Gov. Phil Murphy — a first among the Shore counties.

The 35-page document proposes a “progressive reopening” over the next several weeks, with full access to boardwalks and beaches, as well as reduced-capacity opening for indoor and outdoor restaurants and nonessential retail beginning on June 1. According to the report, Cape May County is uniquely vulnerable to a collapse in the tourism economy — in 2018, the industry created 26,572 jobs, and over 23% of the population is directly employed in retail or food service and accommodation.

In a joint statement, the mayors of Avalon and Stone Harbor, located on the county’s 7 Mile Beach island, said that they would open their beaches for “walking, running, fishing and surfing, from dawn until dusk” on Friday, May 8, but that “stationary activity” would remain unallowed. “The beaches will be patrolled to make sure that social distancing practices are followed and there are no large groups of people gathered,” the statement went on, adding that if the rules are not followed, “we will again close our beaches.”

Asked whether they are prepared for an increase in COVID-19 cases should the county’s beach towns reopen, Brian Cahill, spokesman for Shore Medical Center, said, “We have been preparing for an influx of COVID-19 patients since the beginning, and our staff has done an incredible job. We currently have seventy isolation rooms and we can add more if necessary.” With regard to the county’s recovery initiative, Cahill said the hospital is “continuing to follow the guidelines set forth by the CDC and New Jersey Department of Health.”

Where beach access has remained open

In nearby Wildwood, where access to the beach has remained open, Mayor Pete Byron, along with North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello, announced that the boardwalk would also be opened on Friday. “It is now time for us to begin thinking about how to move forward and allow residents, second home owners and businesses to begin trying to return to some form of normalcy,” Rosenello said in a statement.

On Long Beach Island, where the beaches have also remained open, officials said municipal parks and bathrooms will open on June 1. Katlyn Kerlin, secretary to the Long Beach Township mayor, said that due to the shutdown, their beaches, which make up the majority of the island’s public shoreline, have seen higher than usual visitor numbers. “We’ll begin issuing beach badges early, on June 1, as opposed the regular start date of June 15,” she said.

At the northern tip of the Shore, in Sea Bright, officials are planning on opening the seawall and parking lots at half capacity for Memorial Day. (The beach has been open the whole time.) “Then we’ll just wait and see if we can open the bathrooms, etc., as per the governor,” borough administrator Joseph Verruni said in an email.

In Thursday’s coronavirus briefing, Gov. Phil Murphy confirmed that the Shore municipalities are “one of the high priority areas,” but insisted that guidance from the state is necessary and will come soon. “I don’t begrudge Cape May County for trying to lay a plan out,” he continued. “Tourism is a huge part of their economic reality — we respect that, understand that, and we want to do everything we can, responsibly, to support it.”

The next — and far more challenging — step that Shore towns must confront is how to reopen retail and food service businesses, hotels and amusement parks — all of which are vital to municipalities’ survival, especially their ability to pay their quarterly property taxes. As of last month, $9.4 million in local taxes have been lost since the pandemic began. (Murphy’s executive order 130 allowed municipalities to effectively push back the May 1 due date to June 1.)

“The best information we’ve been able to gather is that [reopening] will be done on a percentage,” said Byron, noting that the reopening of retail and food service businesses is a decision that rests with the governor. “For instance, if you have a bar or restaurant and your capacity is 50, maybe for the first couple months, say through Memorial Day into the middle of June, you can only use 50% of that.”

New local ordinances

Byron and Rosenello have both passed ordinances to allow businesses with adjoining parking or otherwise empty lots to expand tables there, as long as they don’t exceed their restaurants’ normal capacities. “This summer you may see your favorite restaurant with dining tables outside of their establishment,” Rosenello said. “We are working hard to make sure that our friends in the retail and restaurant business survive this unique situation.”

Photo by whereslugo on Unsplash

Up the coast in Ocean City, where an official determination to open the boardwalk and beaches has not yet been announced, Chuck Bangle, owner of the popular Manco & Manco boardwalk pizza shops, was nevertheless busy preparing for the day the state allows him to reopen. “We’re already working inside the stores, taking some tables and chairs out, and we’ve ordered protective shields for the cashiers and are stocking up on masks, gloves, and decontamination equipment,” Bangle said. “I believe when we get the green light, we’ll be allowed to run at thirty percent.”

For the hotel, bed-and-breakfast, and home rental side of the local Shore economies, there is the added concern of how to sanitize bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms that, in normal times, are used by hundreds of guests and turned over within hours on the weekends. In Cape May County, the recovery task force is requesting that the state allow short-term rentals to begin on June 1, and to permit hotels to operate at full capacity starting June 22.

For John DiGenni, a real estate agent in the town of Sea Isle whose family also owns, operates, and lives in the Centennial Guest House, opening seems impossible — particularly for DiGenni, who has infant twins with his wife, who is an ER nurse. Even if the city’s mayor were to lift the ban on short-term and transient rentals were to end, DiGenni plans to remain closed. “I’ve got my family here,” he said. “It’s just too close-quarters.”

Nevertheless, DiGenni, as well as other Jersey Shore real estate agents, have seen no shortage of people from out of state inquiring about summer rentals. “Most of my people want to be here,” he said. “Telling them if they can be is a different story.”

Additionally, business owners everywhere have predicted that Americans will be reluctant to fly this summer, preferring instead to get in their cars and drive to local vacation spots like the Shore.

Questions about available workforce

“I don’t think anyone, any time soon is going to want to travel on a plane or cruise ship,” Bangle said. “So they might stay local, which would be great.”

The final challenge, of course, is the impact on the Shore’s summer workforce. Tourism is the seventh largest employer in New Jersey — one in ten jobs are tourism-related — but with the state projecting visitor numbers to fall by a quarter this summer, hiring is sure to be down. “I’ve reached out to my staff,” Bangle said. “And everyone is chomping at the bit to get back to work, whether they’re 16 or 26 years old.”

For many Shore towns, like Wildwood, summer help comes in the form of international student workers through the J-1 visa Summer Work Travel Program. New Jersey has one of the highest rates of participation in the program with some 7,000 students, many of them destined for service industry jobs at the Shore. “Talking to some of the [business owners] who employ hundreds of these kids, they’re nervous,” said Byron. “They don’t know if they’re going to be able to get visas.”

Within days of the governor’s stay-at-home order of March 9, social media was alight with vitriol from residents of the Shore towns about the rush of visitors and second-homeowners from metropolitan areas hard-hit by COVID-19.

Last week, Point Pleasant approved of restricting the reopening of beaches to residents only, but Murphy said that would not be allowed, given the public’s right to shoreline access.

In Ocean City, calls to shut down the bridges were met by repeated pleas from the mayor “to not point fingers and blame others.”

The knucklehead factor

Byron has also been busy fielding frustrations from his constituents. “Seventy-five percent of the people that come down here on Memorial Day weekend are North Jersey, New York,” he said. “So don’t think for a moment that you’re not going to have your locals going around, taking pictures of license plates and putting them all over social media.”

“We have to work really smart this summer, and the general public has to be smart, too,” Ocean City business owner Bangle said. “If they act like a bunch of knuckleheads, to quote the governor, they could not only shoot things back down, but, if this COVID spreads, we could lose the whole summer.”

Ultimately, it’s tourism that sustains many Jersey Shore communities — and it is tourism that will save them from economic disaster, once the state has allowed for reopening to begin. “We’re a community, from one tip of the Jersey Shore down to the end of Cape May,” Bangle said. “We’ve been through Sandy and all these other storms. So, I think we’ll bounce back, and I think people are going to come up with a lot of creative ways to run businesses — not just for this season, but for the future as well.”

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Leonard Gordon Park

Jersey City Will Begin a Phased Reopening of Parks on Monday, 4/27


Jersey City announced that it begin a phased reopening of five parks on Monday, 4/27 as a first step to safely help residents restore their routines through outdoor exercise and recreational activities while adhering to social distancing measures.

Previously, residents have petitioned for the reopening of county and state parks.

The parks will be open for residents to enjoy the fresh air from dawn to dusk for jogging, walking, and all non-contact activities following the health and safety protocols in place.

On Monday, April 27, the following five parks spanning the city will reopen with restrictions:

  • Enos Jones Park
  • Berry Lane Park
  • Audubon Park
  • Leonard Gordon Park
  • Pershing Field

Prior to reopening, city crews will deep clean the parks in an abundance of caution.  Starting Monday, city officials will reserve the right to limit entry to the park if overcrowding becomes a concern, and will remove park-goers if improper behavior takes place.  The city continues to encourage anyone who feels sick to stay home.

No organized sports will be permitted in an effort to maintain health and safety protocols.  Playground equipment, dog runs, basketball hoops, and other active recreation equipment will still remain closed.  Restrooms and any indoor facilities will also remain closed to public access.  Dog walkers are also asked to keep all dogs on leashes and curb all dogs before entering the park.

Jersey City’s phased reopening of parks will include a second phase in mid-May so that more residents have access to recreational space while adhering to the health and safety mandates in place.

 

Header:  Courtesy Leonard Gordon Park Conservancy’s Facebook page

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Upgrades to Jersey City Parks to Begin This Spring


The Jersey City Municipal Open Space, Recreation, and Historic Property Preservation Fund will disburse $3 million to 15 projects throughout Jersey City, the first such allocation since the city’s voters authorized setting up the fund in a 2016 referendum. Work is expected to start in spring 2020.

The city provided a list of the projects by ward: 

  • Greenville: Ferris Triangle ($500,000) for a new play structure, splash pad, fitness loop, electricity, and water; Martyniak-Enright Park, $200,000 for landscaping, benches, and other passive upgrades; Audubon Park, $100,000 for improved lighting.
  • West Side: LaPointe Park (no amount listed) for an updated splash pad, monument repair, and solar-powered park benches to provide free Wi-Fi and charging stations; Boyd McGuiness Park (no amount listed) for sunshade, bulletin board, and solar-powered park benches.
  • Journal Square/The Heights: Pavonia-Marion Park ($500,000) to build fencing for easier access, expand the playground, repave the basketball courts, replace the bleachers, fix the cement pavement elevation, and add landscaping, trees, benches, picnic tables, chess tables, a water fountain, and a dog park; Canco Park ($100,000) to install benches, a charging station, fencing, a water fountain, and soft playscape modules for toddlers; Reservoir 3 ($400,000) for general renovations; and Pershing Field ($50,000) to restore the historic Bell flagpole.
  • Downtown: Hamilton Park ($300,000) for benches, picnic tables, and an overhaul of the dog parks; Van Vorst Park ($200,000) to improve the playground equipment and surface, provide shade for the sandbox, and install a synthetic lawn; Mary Benson Park ($200,000) to clean and repaint the memorial, refurbish the original water fountain, and plant trees and painting the grounds surrounding both monuments; Brunswick Community Garden ($3,000) to prune an unhealthy mulberry tree to meet safety standards.
  • Bergen-Lafayette: Bergen Hill Park ($200,000) to install fencing where none exists, restore a stone wall, install night lighting and security cameras, and create walking paths; Arlington Park ($100,000) for landscaping improvements, fencing, murals, and cosmetic work on the gazebo.

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Is a Settlement Near for the 6th Street Embankment?


When advocates for Jersey City’s Harsimus Cove/Sixth Street Embankment look up at the old rail structure, they see the prospect for a West of the Hudson High Line – albeit with nuanced ecological features – but after more than a decade of court battles and an estimated $1 million in legal fees expended by the city, is that vision doomed to be pie in the sky?

The City of Jersey City and the nonprofit allies marshaled alongside it hope that’s not the case and remain guardedly optimistic that the goal of preserving much of the overhead infrastructure as public open space can be achieved.

Here’s an update on that situation as best we can piece it together.

After the annual meeting of the locally based Embankment Preservation Coalition  held last month, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop offered a glowing forecast about the project.

Fulop tweeted, “Imagine an eight-acre elevated park in #Jersey City like the #HighLine in NYC. Well, after 15 years of litigation, at tonight’s annual Embankment Coalition meeting I had the privilege of sharing with a packed house that we’re at a settlement. A big win for Jersey City.”

For a fuller explanation, we requested an interview with the mayor, but in an Oct. 28 email, mayoral spokesperson Kimberly Wallace Scalcione said, “We’re holding off on press for the time being. We expect to schedule a news conference in the near future when everything is completely finalized.”

Jersey City Times file photo

So, we asked coalition president Stephen Gucciardo to outline the status of the longstanding litigation that pits the city and its allies – the Coalition and nationwide nonprofit Rails-to-Trails – on one side against Conrail, the Hyman estate that purchased the property from Conrail and from various LLCs associated with the estate, and the Albanese Organization, a developer based in Garden City, N.Y., on the other.

Gucciardo, a local realtor and longtime Downtown neighborhood advocate, said Jersey City, the Embankment Preservation Coalition, and Rails-to-Trails have agreed on a term sheet setting forth the “objectives and responsibilities for each of the partiesassociated with the embankment project. The terms and conditions outlined in that document, he said, should serve as a model for an eventual legal settlement.

“We are actively reviewing drafts of a settlement,” Gucciardo said, “but we have some ways to go before a signed settlement is reached. I imagine it will take another couple of months to complete.”

Gucciardo said the Hyman estate and Albanese are “actively participating” in settlement discussions. “Everyone is pursuing a solution. We’re optimistic but cautious going forward.”

Meanwhile, Washington State-based attorney Charles Montange, who is representing the city, the coalition, and Rails-to-Trails in the litigation, cautioned that any settlement announcement at this point would be at best premature particularly since the term sheet agreement was non-binding on the litigants.

“The parties are still in negotiation,” Montange said. When might talks be concluded? “It’s an ongoing thing, a moving target. No one’s decided on a schedule.” Montange said the document amounted to “a couple dozen sheets” but suspected that a final settlement agreement would be “a couple hundred” pages.

Neither Gucciardo nor Montange would discuss the contents of the term sheet; however, The Jersey Journal has published a report about that based on information attributed to Fulop.

Jersey City Times file photo

A source familiar with the term sheet proposal told Jersey City Times that under that proposal, Jersey City at no cost would get ownership of five of the six blocks traversed by the embankment, from Marin Boulevard west to Brunswick Street, all to be converted to a public park – plus two at-grade parcels terminating at the N.J. Turnpike plus potentially the rest of Harsimus rail branch extending to the rear of the Harsimus cemetery and north to the Bergen Arches.

At the same time, Albanese – after paying the Hyman estate a financial consideration for the property – would be permitted to build two large-scale residential developments on parcels between Marin Boulevard and Manila Avenue: two high-rise towers, 45 and 35 floors, with a combined total of up to 875 units.

However, because the city’s current redevelopment plan for the area provides for only 400 housing units and 200 hotel rooms, the city council would have to approve an amendment to that plan to clear the way for the increased volume of units. A city ordinance passed in 2012 in anticipation of a settlement cleared the way for residential structures up to 45 stories but left open the issue of density.

As a concession to the city, Albanese would provide public access to the eastern embankment block by installing a staircase and an ADA-compliant elevator at Marin Boulevard along with public bathrooms, a land bridge linking the first two blocks of the eastern embankment between Manila Avenue and Erie Street, and a section of parkland.

In 2012 Jersey City approved a $7 million bond ordinance in support of efforts to develop a park and pedestrian/bike path with a 30-foot-wide right-of-way atop the embankment that could hook up with the Hudson River waterfront and offer a mass transit corridor link for a possible expansion of the NJ Transit Light Rail. It’s expected that the city would use part of the bond money for an environmental cleanup of the top of the embankment and for land bridges and public access facilities such as stairways and/or lifts.

The mile-long Harsimus rail branch – extending from the waterfront to Waldo Avenue, accommodating seven rail lines – was developed by the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1870s. In the early 1900s, the railroad built the sandstone embankment as a more stable replacement for the original structure, which was iron and timber. Freight service ended in the 1990s.

As part of the litigation, Jersey City has alleged that Conrail failed to file an application for an “abandonment” of rail property – the Harsimus branch including the embankment – before selling it to a group of LLCs affiliated with Steve and Victoria Hyman in 2005 — and that this failure was a breach of federal railroad law. The Hymans initially wanted to build townhouses then later high-rise towers on each of the six blocks traversed by the embankment. A few years ago, they brought Albanese into the development picture. Steve Hyman died earlier this year.

Asked for comment about the lawsuit’s status, Conrail Vice President of Corporate Development Jonathan Broder said, “This is an exciting time, and we are pleased that all parties including the Embankment Preservation Coalition, Rails-to-Trails, Jersey City, and Conrail are all very close to an agreement in principle.

“Now we just have the hard work of finalizing the details, so the Harsimus branch embankment can once again serve as a major connector bringing communities together in a green space in the heart of Jersey City.”

Jersey City Councilman James Solomon, whose ward encompasses the embankment, said he remains “hopeful that this effort has progressed to this point, and my goal is to ensure the city has a credible plan to turn the embankment into an accessible, vibrant public space. That has to be in the forefront of any settlement agreement.”

The coalition has been pitching an ecological concept for the embankment since its formation some two decades ago. For more details about that concept, visit its website at https://www.embankment.org.

Jersey City Times file photo

 

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