WILDWOOD — An informal survey has found the majority of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce’s members oppose plans to implement a local beach fee.
The results are not surprising, given the city’s and Cape May County’s reliance on tourism. Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland said tourism is the county’s top industry, adding $5.1 billion to its economy in 2011.
Statewide, she said, tourism generated $36 billion. Beachfront counties contributed 50 percent, or $18 billion, of that total.
But while tourism businesses are key to that local economy, many of those business owners won’t be able to vote when the issue of beach tags appears on the ballot March 5.
Tracey Dufault, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods chamber, said more than 50 percent of the group’s 616 members are not Wildwood residents and are ineligible to vote.
The group conducted the membership survey after the City Commission chose to put the issue before voters.
While the chamber has not issued a statement on the proposal, 61 percent of the membership responded to the survey. Of those, 71 percent said they oppose beach fees, Dufault said. Of those surveyed, 64 percent also said they oppose beach fees even if they are implemented islandwide, which would include North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest.
“It’s clear that the membership is speaking for themselves,” Dufault said.
The survey results have been or will be shared with other tourism groups on the island and in the city, she said.
Among those opposing the fees is chamber member and motel owner Mary Erceg. Erceg has owned a motel in the city since 1971 and owns Boardwalk property.
“I believe in a free beach. Anything south of Cape May is free,” Erceg said.
The free beaches are a marketing tool for the island, she said: “You can’t say home of the finest, safest free beaches … except for Wildwood.”
But Erceg cannot vote in the March 5 election, because she lives in Cape May.
“I’m a taxpayer of longtime standing and a community activist. I feel I’m entitled to have an opinion,” she said.
The city has about 2,800 registered voters. So far, the county has not reported any significant increase in voter registrations related to the fees issue.
But while many business owners oppose the fees, longtime residents such as Sheila Cirino, a city property owner for 27 years, is among those who support the beach fees and hopes the referendum passes March 5.
Cirino, however, is a British citizen and thus unable to vote on the referendum.
She said she doubts the fees will reduce her taxes, but she believes they would bring more upscale visitors to the island.
“It will stop the buses from coming in,” she said.
The city has said it expects the fees to unburden taxpayers of the estimated $1 million it costs to maintain the expansive city beaches.
Opponents, however, say the city will lose money.
In 2012, the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority paid the city more than $250,000 for beach maintenance, $100,000 for 10 extra Boardwalk police officers, $28,300 for event support, $30,000 for the administrative costs of collecting tourism development fees and $183,000 for parking lot rentals.
John Siciliano, executive director of the authority, said that if fees are imposed, the city would no longer receive the beach maintenance funds, the money for extra police or the event support funding, a figure expected to reach $75,000 in 2013.
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