Cape May County’s exodus continued in 2012 as growth in the rest of South Jersey’s population leveled off, according to data released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Cape’s population has fallen nearly 6 percent since its 2000 peak. The population declined an additional 0.3 percent from 2011 to 2012, continuing a counterintuitive trend from the housing boom of the early 2000s. Other counties saw slight increases compared with the pre-recession explosion.
“The housing boom actually contributes to the problem in that people are building larger summer vacation homes instead of more modest homes that attract families and their kids,” said Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College.
In many ways, changing demographics have exaggerated Cape May County’s long-standing seasonal economy. Population decreases in Margate, for instance, have historically been balanced in Atlantic County by increases in mainland towns. But almost every municipality on Cape May County boasts high-valued waterfront property.
Douglas said the vacationers attracted to Cape May County in recent decades have decreased the need for schools, but increased demand for emergency and traffic-related services in summer months.
“It makes it harder to manage the resources,” he said. “If you have greater demand for police during the summer, what’s an appropriate level for the winter time? Do you hire temporary police or carry extra year-round?”
Gerald Thornton, the county’s freeholder director, said one of the key problems driving population decline is unemployment. During the summer it’s near zero, but rises to 14 percent in winter.
“It’s significant,” he said. “Particularly for those young families; the financial resources are not there to support them.”
Thornton said the county has been working on initiatives to improve jobs in the county, including an expansion of the county’s airport, its burgeoning winemaking industry and Rutgers University’s aquaculture program.
“It’s all out in the future, but we’re working toward it,” he said.
Sea Isle City, with its largely seasonal economy — 83 percent of homeowners own second homes — is representative of the county as a whole.
“We go from 2,500 people in winter to over 40,000 on any given week in the summertime,” said Mayor Leonard Desiderio. “So we need to prepare and give the same services people are accustomed to having — and we have to do it year-round.”
Another major factor, Desiderio said, is the city’s aging population. The county’s seniors often end up moving in with family in other areas or retiring to warmer climates, such as Florida.
“They tend to leave not only Sea Isle, but the county,” said Desiderio, who also serves as vice director of the county’s Board of Chosen Freeholders.
James W. Hughes, dean of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said the U.S. population as a whole is aging. But that’s exaggerated in retirement communities, such as Cape May County.
Children moving away to college and establishing their own households may contribute to the area’s problem. Meanwhile, inflated home prices during the housing bubble kept those young families away from resort areas.
“It doesn’t signal the area is declining,” he said. “It’s simply that the empty nesters have not yet been replaced by young households with children.”
Hughes said the recession may also be providing an incentive for people to leave Cape May County to seek out areas with a lower cost of living.
“You have a lot of cross currents working,” he said.
There are signs that more of the county’s houses are going unoccupied. According to census figures, in 2011, 58.1 percent of all housing units in Cape May County were vacant. That’s up from 54.5 percent in 2006 and 53.7 percent in 2000.
Another symptom indicative of population drain is flagging school enrollment.
Sea Isle City Public School closed last June, diverting its students to Ocean City, and many other districts in the county have explored consolidation.
According to state Department of Education statistics, Cape May County lost more than 15 percent of its students between 2001 and 2011. Atlantic and Ocean counties saw smaller decreases — 0.2 and 3.2 percent respectively — over the same period of time, most likely due to aging populations.
All of this results in less business for the already lean winter months and a leaner municipal budget year-round. For the local government, Desiderio said, that means the old mantra “more with less.”
“As employees have retired, we have not replaced them, with the exception of public safety,” he said. “We’re not going to sacrifice public safety.”
Hughes said the largest consequence of Cape May County’s population decline is that municipalities will have to change the way they operate.
“Clearly, you’re going to have to adjust your municipal service levels to the size of the population,” he said. “In many cases, the key population to be serviced is a much larger summer population.”
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|County-level population estimates, 2000-12|
|Source: U.S. Census Bureau|
|Source: N.J. Department of Education|