WILDWOOD CREST — Joe Flacco, of North Wildwood, spent the morning Friday getting ready for the lunch crowd on the Boardwalk.
And a crowd there was — parents pushing preschool children in strollers, couples walking arm in arm and grandparents shopping for souvenirs. Summer is over on the Boardwalk, but you would not know it from the incoming weekend traffic.
Flacco’s business — Alex’s Pizzeria, named for his son — will stay open through October to take advantage of the weekend crowds that come to the shore for what is normally its best weather month.
Like a lot of seasonal shore merchants, his shop saw smaller crowds in 2013. Many small-business owners attribute the weak summer to the rainiest June on record in South Jersey, the lingering effects of the recession and negative publicity surrounding last year’s Hurricane Sandy.
“We had an OK season when the weather was good. But we had a lot of bad weather,” he said. “The hurricane slowed up business for the whole New Jersey coast.”
Shore towns are banking on an especially good shoulder season this year to make up for the slower-than-average summer.
Business and civic groups on Friday promoted the island’s fall calendar with help from state Travel and Tourism Director Grace Hanlon.
“I congratulate Wildwood on being savvy to create a very strong shoulder season,” she said.
Hanlon and the other speakers were almost drowned out Friday by the engines of passing motorcycles in town for the island’s annual Roar to the Shore weekend rally, which wraps up today.
In weeks to come, the island will play host to the Irish and Italian festivals, the state Firemen’s Convention, the Governor’s Cup Hydrofest on Sunset Lake, Fabulous ’50s Weekend, and a beach race featuring 1920s-era cars, among other events.
Hanlon said the state’s “Stronger than the Storm” TV campaign is over for now. Her department is working on new promotions for next summer.
Critics of the campaign have said its focus on Hurricane Sandy inadvertently might have turned away out-of-state tourists by planting a seed of doubt about New Jersey’s readiness for visitors.
But Hanlon said it was important to address visitors’ vacation worries directly.
“Stronger than the Storm was all about letting people know we were open for business after a catastrophic storm that got lots of national — and international — attention,” she said.
Gary McGhee, of Lower Township, director of the Greater Wildwood Hotel & Motel Association, said bookings were down slightly this year among his 300 members.
He blames the economy and the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy. But that makes the fall even more important, he said.
Morey’s Piers in Wildwood is sponsoring a new Zombie Mud Run 5-kilometer race to get more people to the Boardwalk this fall, owner Jack Morey said.
“It’s a race on the beach. We’ll put up manmade sand dunes and water slides that people go down while being chased by zombies that are after your organs, which are flags,” he said, calling the event both quirky and tacky.
Shore resorts in other parts of South Jersey have similar stakes riding on a good fall.
“We don’t bank on the fall, but we look at it as our second season,” said Michele Gillian, director of the Ocean City Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Ocean City has events such as the Air Show, car shows and the popular Fall Block Party that promise busy weekends ahead.
“These special events really help. It doesn’t replace our in-season, but it helps,” she said.
Even Atlantic City with its year-round smorgasbord of music and entertainment choices has cause to celebrate this fall with the return of Miss America and the annual Boardwalk parade this month.
Flacco said he appreciates the effort the city’s business groups put into the festivals, conventions and special events. But September will never compare to July, he said.
“The fall can’t support the summer. It just doesn’t have the same potential,” he said.
Still, Flacco conceded that without the Wildwoods’ upcoming special events, he and other Boardwalk stores would have called it quits after Labor Day.
“The events help. Years ago, we’d be closed by now with the water turned off,” he said.
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