CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Cape May County has found a tidy niche of business through dance competitions.

The nonprofit center operated by the Middle Township Board of Education has been cultivating a following among national dance organizations that will bring thousands of families to Cape May County this summer for weeks of competition.

It's creating its own swell in the local tourism market, said Director Kay Aspell, of Middle Township.

"This year we have three major national competitions and four regional competitions," Aspell said. "We'll have 2,000 dancers per day when you talk about the big groups. You're talking thousands of dancers - plus their families."

Most of the competitors' families turn the competition into a family vacation, she said. Even the local competitions tend to fill up hotel rooms in April.

"They're staying a week at a time. They're staying in motels, eating in restaurants, going on the Boardwalk. They're all over the place," she said.

The Hy-Land Motor Inn on Mechanic Street in Middle Township was booked solid with ballet dancers one weekend last spring.

Among the three national competitions is On Stage America, based in Bethesda, Md. This group's dancers also are competing in Orlando, Fla., another popular tourism destination.

Director Raj Mishra said Cape May County is ideal because it is centrally located for the region's dancers and it offers a beach vacation. The group has been coming to Cape May for 12 years.

The one down side: The group's schedule requires the competition to take place in the busy summer when shore prices are highest.

"It's expensive, but it's easier to get to," he said. "You don't have to fly, which makes it easier."

Mishra said he could host the competition in a big city such as Baltimore.

"But they'd rather go to a beach town. There are a lot of people who come in. They bring in a lot of money to the town," he said.

Mishra said his responsibilities usually tie him to the Performing Arts Center.

"I've been trying to do some fishing (in Cape May) for 12 years but I haven't had a chance. We'll see how it goes," he said.

Middle Township Chamber of Commerce President Carol Sawyer said the challenge will be to introduce these families to businesses and attractions in Middle Township. Often, visitors to Cape May County gravitate to the barrier islands.

The township has comparatively fewer hotels and motels than the resort towns. So capturing the spillover business from the dance competitions could be harder for the township, she said.

The township's restaurants and retail stores have as much or more to offer visitors as Stone Harbor, Ocean City or the Wildwoods, she said. But mainland towns don't benefit from the same coordinated marketing as resort towns, which often have paid tourism staff.

"They have a huge advantage over the inland towns. Our chamber is all volunteers," she said. "I'm hoping we can get some of that interest in Middle Township. We're so spread out. Unless we can get a coupon book or directory, they'll have no idea what we offer."

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