A developer buying property around Brigantine’s iconic lighthouse has plans to revitalize a vacant restaurant and build single-family homes there.
The sales are good news for the resort community, which has suffered financial setbacks from tax appeals and damage from Hurricane Sandy. But it’s bad news for the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which had hoped to use the adjacent property for expansion.
In recent months, builder Michael Snyder has bought and demolished the old Gulf gas station, a residential lot south of the Circle and is about to close on Steak 38, a former steakhouse that’s remained vacant since closing in December 2008.
“Snyder is a lifetime resident who knows Brigantine real estate very well,” said Mayor Phil Guenther. “If he has confidence in investing in Brigantine, others will hopefully follow.”
Since the recession, the real estate market in Brigantine — both commercial and residential — has stagnated. The number of vacant housing units, for example, has increased from 41.2 percent in 2000 to 51.7 percent in 2011, according to U.S. census statistics. The city has also taken a major hit due to tax appeals, losing $192 million in property value — more than 4 percent of the entire city’s valuation — in the past year alone.
Snyder, who in 2009 developed a former bank into the restaurant Cellar 32, said there’s a sense right now that the economy is on the mend.
“It’s a great time to buy up properties that have been on the market for a few years,” he said. “The market’s on the upswing.”
That sentiment was echoed by Sheldon Grace, an Absecon Realtor who has been trying to sell Steak 38 for several years.
“Investors are out looking around,” he said. “They have the cash, and they’re looking to make deals.”
Several other properties, which Grace declined to name for confidentiality reasons, are at different points in the listing and sale process.
According to county property records, Snyder purchased
3701 and 3705 Brigantine Blvd.
from private owners for $300,000 and the Gulf property from Cumberland Farms for $730,000.
Snyder said he and partner Jack Scheurich agreed to pay $1.1 million for the Steak 38 property, far less than the $1.85 million minimum bid requirement at a bank auction three years ago. An attempted bid back then proved unsuccessful, he said.
Now, Snyder said, he plans to eventually build two single-family units at the Gulf station site, which underwent environmental mitigation at the time of its closing. He also plans to make improvements to the Steak 38 property in order to attract a buyer. The sale will come with a liquor license, one of the reasons why the deal’s closing has been delayed.
“Right after settlement, we’ll put the property back on the market to entertain anybody and any use,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ll develop it.”
Snyder said the steakhouse did suffer some flood damage from Sandy: The first floor saw about a foot and a half of water. He also plans to open up the floor plan. “Right now, it’s a dungeon,” he said.
But the property is in a prime location at the center of the resort community and features a handicapped elevator, a rarity in even the most upscale commercial properties.
Guenther said he’s thankful that the boarded-up Gulf property, which had been an eyesore, is now gone and that Steak 38, which was also starting to deteriorate, may soon be occupied.
“I believe it improves the entrance to our island and ... it’s a good sign that people are investing in Brigantine,” he said.
But the development has come at a cost.
Both the city and the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which recently signed a 25-year lease with the city for its headquarters near the lighthouse circle, had tried to obtain the Gulf station in recent years.
Robert Schoelkopf, the stranding center’s director, said he had hoped to use the vacant parcel to expand his existing rescue operations and build an educational facility for visiting schoolchildren. The stranding center responds to calls statewide and often takes in injured animals from other states. It responded to 113 stranding calls last year.
“In 2011, we had 25 seals at one time at the center, and 122 total for that year,” he said. “It was very crowded. We were cramped for space.”
Demand has waned in the past two years, as the shelter has only housed eight and five seals at any given time, respectively. But Schoelkopf said the operation will still need to expand.
Snyder said he’s given the city an option to buy a portion of the property adjacent to the stranding center.
“I’m not in a rush to develop it,” he said. “I did leave the door open with the city.”
However, budgetary constraints — Brigantine is operating under a hiring freeze and is considering layoffs in the future — mean the city has little money to invest.
“I believe it is something we should consider, but we’ve been very engaged in the (Sandy) recovery efforts,” Guenther said. “It’s not something the council has discussed lately.”
Schoelkopf said it’s still possible the stranding center could take over the adjacent Brigantine museum property if the museum is able to relocate, but that probably isn’t imminent, either.
“At this point, we’re not holding our breath,” he said.
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