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The Year in Review

There was only one headline that dominated Cape May newspapers this year – Convention Hall.

It’s that magic time of year that reporters love to write about – the Year in Review and this one was a corker. It was definitely the year of governing by referendum.

Snow began and ended the year’s headlines – a February snowstorm hit the county leaving over 5,000 without power and many stranded. Here on the island, those without heat or electric took themselves or were transported to the West Cape May Fire Hall to wait out the storm until power was restored. A more recent Dec. 26 storm dumped 18 inches on the island, but residents were seen digging out this week and with weekend temperatures hitting the 50-degree temperature mark – the final storm of 2010 was a distant memory once the New Year rang in.

But there was only one headline that dominated Cape May newspapers this year – Convention Hall. How much will it cost? When will it come down? What will it look like? How much revenue will it generate? How much space will it take up? And by the way, how much will cost?

Apparently it will cost $10.5 million. In 2010 voters again expressed their opinions in the voting polls on two separate occasions. Three new council members were elected in May – Deanna Fiocca, Jack Wichterman and Bill Murray – all ran on a slate promising not to exceed the previously approved $10.5 million which passed in a 2008 referendum. At the time, the projected opening date was spring of 2010. The building was condemned in the spring of 2008.

In a July 2010 referendum on the question, voters rejected an attempt to up the ante another $3.15 million to cover the original project design which included a main hall that would accommodate 1,151 seats with a soundproof partition to divide the room in half with a floor allowing multiple uses. Three community rooms were slated for the ill-fated second floor, one room with a capacity for 75 persons and two other with a capacity of six persons. Three retail stores would have occupied the front of the hall.

The Solarium was demolished in early December.

The referendum came after two failed attempts to bid out the contract. In both cases bids came in excess of the $10.5 million originally approved in 2008. Plans for a second-story edifice jutting out across the Promenade into Beach Avenue were scrapped for a far more modest one-story building with a main opening facing the now-defunct Solarium. In addition, because of redesign costs, bids for the scaled back Convention Hall must actually come in at $7.5 million. The jury is still out on whether or not that will happen until bids come in sometime in March of 2011.

Both Convention Hall and the Solarium faced the wrecking ball in early December. A last-minute plan to Save the Solarium (SOS) by a would be non-profit group failed quickly when the key to saving the 1993 building included funding by City Council to the tune of $350,000.

A spring 2012 opening is planned. Work is expected to begin in the spring and continue throughout the summer months.

City Council occupied the hot seat for much of 2010 – when they weren’t in an often contentious meeting regarding the fate and design of Convention Hall; they were busy fighting East Enders who took up arms over a proposal to generate more parking revenue by adding 80 parking meters to Beach Avenue’s now meter-free concourse, and by allowing motorists to back into their parking spaces, thus creating 334 more metered spaces, along the more congested area of Beach Avenue.

A proposal to add parking meters caused an uproar in East Cape May

Homeowners affected by the plan, calling themselves Friends and Neighbors of East Cape May (FAN ECM), filed petitions for a referendum, effectively suspending the two ordinances which passed in March. Council unanimously passed the ordinances despite vocal protests at a standing-room only meeting of City Council, led by Beach Avenue cottager Jim Testa. Undaunted, council countered the petition and filed an action in April with Superior Court of New Jersey seeking a ruling from the court as to whether traffic parking regulations are subject to referendum vote. Meanwhile, back in City Hall, the City Clerk rescinded the certification of the petition calling for a referendum on the two parking ordinances. FAN ECM got back in the saddle again and re-solicited signatures for the petition– this time successfully. In June the city’s effort to stop the referendum was denied by Superior Court Judge Valerie Armstrong. The issue went to the voters in a special referendum held on Sept. 8. Both ordinances were soundly defeated and motorists can park free along the East End of Beach Avenue and continue to parallel park along the West and Central section of the busy road.

And speaking of parking meters, visitors and merchants inundated the city with complaints about the former City Manager Lou Corea-inspired “user friendly” parking meters which were installed about The Washington Street Mall and Jackson Street in 2008. If visitors could find the meter to feed it, they couldn’t get it to work.

So, what else plagued City Council? Well, there’s them light piers City Engineer Jim Mott installed along either side of the little bridge coming into town near Schellenger Landing. Some say they’re puurrrty, others say they’re tacky. Some think they look like miniature golf decorations, others say they’re a beacon of warmth as they make their way across the bridge. Whatever they are, they sure caused a raucous and led to the formation of Blue Ribbon panel to look into changing them. And the panel, in their due diligence, did just that. Only problem? No money, honey. The light piers were installed with funds obtained by a special grant and the mayor said he would not use city money to have them removed and something else installed in their stead. If the Blue Ribbon panel, headed by former Mainstay Inn and Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts board member Tom Carroll, wanted something else – the group would just have to find the money to pay for it. And that, my friends was that.

The three new council members got a little egg on their collective faces in November when they – in a 3-2 vote decided to throw out the new city engineer, Jim Mott (new as of 2008 that is) and bring back the old engineering firm (Remington, Vernick and Walberg) which the city sued in ’08 over allegation of poor performance and contract issues. The lawsuit was settled shortly after the three new council members were elected in May.

The new council members said no to the Army Corps of Engineers’ selecting the eroding Cove Beach for a sand-replenishment project.

Egg was still not quite off when – whoa Nelly – in another 3-2 vote, the new council members said, ‘no way’ to the Army Corps of Engineers’ selecting the eroding Cove Beach for a sand-replenishment project because of project restriction with regard to the piping plover nesting turf. The question of whether or not sunbathers take precedence over the piping plover was settled a few days later when council members reached an agreement on the language in the contract. The project is mostly funded by federal and state governments and the money is expected to run out in the near future.

Over in Cape May Point, the dog days of August must have really gotten to Commissioner Joe Nietubicz who abruptly called it quits after six years of service in that position, citing “I’ve had enough.” The tiny community of Cape May Point got a new commissioner in November. John Henderson ran unopposed and hopefully will not have “had enough” in the coning year.

Lest they not be left out of the fray, West Cape May had a little political tittle of its own going on in the spring when a certain commissioner, let’s call him Ramsey Geyer, posted questions anonymously – or so he thought – on the Cape May County Herald’s online Spout Off “column.” The questions included whether residents should vote out the mayor. Some clever wag figured out the identity of the mysterious spouter offer. Ooops.

Also in the spring of the year – must have been something in the air – the Borough of West Cape May misplaced, lost, could not account for as much as 121 million gallons of water. That’s a lot of water. Cape May County Prosecutor Robert Taylor was on the hunt to help the borough find and prosecute the H2O Thieves. We’re not sure if they ever did catch the thieves, but by November the water record for the third quarter showed the highest water consumption ever on record for the borough, and also showed a drop of unexplained water loss. It’s a mystery wrapped up in conundrum.

In ongoing stores, the fate of Ponderlodge has wavered throughout the year. The State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) took over the 253-acre property in 2006 for $8.45 million, renaming it the Villas Wildlife Management Area. At that time, DEP drafted an ambitious plan to return the tract to nature. That plan was put on hold when Richard Stockton College expressed interest in 12 acres of the property, including the lodge, to create an environmental center. In July of last year, DEP agreed to lease the land to the college. But hold on there cowboy. Not so fast. In October, Stockton College backed away from the deal after the National Park Service said the lease violates conservation restrictions on the site. On Dec. 21, DEP announced plans to go back to its original idea of returning the land to nature making it a handicapped-accessible fishing site and demolishing the already deteriorating buildings, which include razing the massive 16,000-square-foot lodge (the mansion William “Billy” Pflaumer owner of the Christian Schmidt Brewing Co. in Philadelphia, who purchased the Ponderlodge site, better known as Beer World.), two swimming pools, a snack bar, pro shop, tennis court and basketball court.

Hearings on the fate of the Beach Theatre are scheduled to resume at the end of January.

And then there’s the ongoing saga of the Beach Theatre on Beach Avenue. This is a story which has been in the Year End Review for four years now and still there is no end in sight.

The beleaguered Beach Theatre Foundation (BTF) had its share of downturns this year. In February, Frank Theaters, owner of the Beach Theatre, sued the foundation for $50,000 for an alleged breach of contract for common area maintenance area fees for the theater complex here. The BTF leased the movie theater in 2008 and part of 2009.

In October, the city of Cape May called in a $100,000 loan made to the foundation so they could lease the 1951 movie theatre for the 2008 season, which, though payable in 2012 came due when the lease was terminated in 2009 by the Franks Investments, owners of the property. City Solicitor Anthony Monzo sent letters to 33 persons who signed pledges to make a donation to the BTF “for the purpose of collateralizing and partially guaranteeing a loan from the City of Cape May” asking them to sign promissory notes.

The Franks are trying to demolish the theater to make way for beachfront condominiums. However, their demolition permit ran out, forcing them to reapply to the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) for a new permit. The HPC denied the permit. The Franks challenged the decision and the matter has ended up in the Zoning Board where it has languished since July. Both the BTF and the HPC maintain that the theater is of historic significance and thus cannot be demolished. Hearings are scheduled to resume on the matter at the end of January.

Our Lady Star of the Sea Elementary closed its doors in June.

A shrinking population has also caused the closing of Our Lady Star of the Sea Elementary School in June. More school closing could be on the horizon for island schools. The results of a study done by Richard Perniciaro of Atlantic Cape Community College were revealed in a town meeting in November. The study citing a conservative estimate of savings to be in the neighborhood of more than $700,000 per year and a reduced tax rate for two the island towns – West Cape May and Cape May Point.

Okay – that pretty much wraps it up. Next week we’ll be Looking to 2011 and give you an idea what will make the headlines next year.

Until then, Happy Trails and a Happy and prosperous New Year.