A multimillion-dollar state tourism campaign to boost business at the Jersey Shore has neglected storm-damaged communities in the southern portion of Ocean County, local officials say.
The state's $25 million Stronger Than the Storm campaign failed to include storm-impacted towns in its summer event lineup, and officials want to know why.
"You don't have to have a boardwalk or a Ferris wheel to be a part of the shore community," Little Egg Harbor Township Mayor John Kehm said. "We have a boating community and a fishing industry. There are many attractions around this area."
The bayside community is estimated to have had almost 5,000 homes sustain substantial storm damage, and the township has lost about $54 million in ratables due to Hurricane Sandy.
Kehm said there have not been any Stronger Than the Storm events in the township, and he had never even heard of the campaign to boost the state's $38 billion tourism industry until contacted by a reporter. The campaign is managed by the state Economic Development Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Honestly, I don't know why the state is not including the mainland communities in this campaign. It just seems like it's the barrier island towns. I don't know why they're not bringing us in on that," Kehm said.
Stronger Than the Storm events have been held several times since May 24 in portions of northern Ocean and Monmouth counties. One event, Kites and Castles, was held July 27 in southern Ocean County's Ship Bottom.
Campaign spokeswoman Shannon Eis said Stronger Than the Storm prioritized towns that were heavily affected by the storm.
During a campaign event Saturday in Cape May, Eis said there had been no mention of Little Egg Harbor during meetings held with Ocean County officials. The meetings were held to discuss how the campaign was working and how it could meet the needs of county residents and businesses during the last quarter of 2013 and the future, Eis said.
Ocean County Freeholder Joseph Vicari said he agrees with Kehm that more should have been done through the campaign to include storm-damaged communities in southern Ocean County.
Vicari said there should have been better communication with these communities, and that the identities of the towns that were hit hardest were made very clear.
"I'm not only concerned, I am upset and unhappy with the progress of the campaign, and I have told them that. Little Egg Harbor has had extensive damage, and they lost thousands of homes," Vicari said Wednesday. "These people in places like Little Egg Harbor are not asking for much. They're asking for what they had before the storm. They had a dream. They wanted a home, and so many of them are still not back in their homes."
Eis wrote in an email Wednesday that Vicari was passionate in previous discussions on the topic of critical needs in the most impacted and overlooked areas and was intimately familiar with the stories of literally dozens of his residents. Vicari didn't cite any towns by name but was specific and ardent about the challenges they're facing as a whole, Eis said.
Meanwhile, Kehm said, township officials have worked to secure funding and resources on their own, including $400,000 from the Robin Hood Foundation to assist affected residents.
It is wrong that Little Egg Harbor wasn't included in the tourism campaign the first summer after Sandy, but not surprising, Kehm said.
"We would do something if they presented it to us. I know what we're doing here in Little Egg because we are doing a lot ourselves and we're getting stuff done. If someone gives me or the administration a call, we would want it here," he said.
In Atlantic County, there have been two Stronger Than the Storm-sponsored events, in Brigantine and Ventnor. County Executive Dennis Levinson said officials have been pleased with the state's response and the campaign.
Most of the emphasis during the campaign was on the northern part of the state because it sustained an immeasurable amount of devastation, Levinson said.
"I can say there was plenty of attention down here from the governor. He came here with the president. I'm not saying we didn't suffer a whole lot of damage, but I am very satisfied with Trenton's response. The governor could have gone a lot of places after the storm with the president, and he chose Brigantine here in Atlantic County," Levinson said.
The campaign has not hosted any Stronger Than the Storm events in Atlantic City as traffic-driving initiatives because HUD stipulates the funding cannot be spent on casino or gambling activity, Eis wrote in an email.
Stronger Than the Storm has promoted Atlantic City's major events, including a sandcastle competition, in its social and digital channels. Officials in Atlantic City have been good partners in other ways, including sharing research and data, and helping the campaign service media who are covering the shore end-to-end, Eis said.
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