LONGPORT — A disappearing smile, the victim of a water tower project left incomplete following a contract dispute, has been the talk of this sleepy resort town for more than two years.

The familiar face, which has gazed exuberantly across the Downbeach area since 1982, will return this spring when work resumes this month. But that’s just the painted smile. Structurally, several things need to be addressed first.

“Right now, the water tower’s not happy with all the dirty work that needs to be done inside and out,” said Borough Engineer Dick Carter, allowing a momentary grin to spread across his face as he stood inside the 125-foot structure. “Hopefully, we can make it happy again.”

The difference, of course, is that Longport’s water tower has become a local landmark of sorts. When the smiley face — as well as the lesser-known slogan “The Best Port Longport” — disappeared, the borough was inundated with inquiries from concerned residents and visitors.

Carter takes the issue very seriously. While the surrounding community jokes and agonizes about its superficial appearance, he said, many important structural items were left incomplete when work came to a halt in 2012.

A study commissioned by the borough found more than a dozen items never addressed or left incomplete on the $600,000 project, originally awarded to Beckett Enterprises. Starting Thursday, the Salem County-based Corrosion Control Corp. will begin preparing to address those problems. They will be paid nearly $91,000 to complete the job.

Exterior problems range from deteriorated roof plates at the top of the big blue orb and an access door with rusting hinges to anchor bolts — which help secure the tower into its foundation — that may need to be replaced.

“The weight of the water and the tower will keep it from tipping over,” Carter said of the anchor bolts. “Now, the problem could be when it’s empty.”

When work first came to a halt, Carter said, the red light at the top of the tower wasn’t working and had to be relit. These structural items must take place before painting can resume during milder weather. Of course, he said, it’s the paint job that most residents notice.

“It’s sort of like paving a road,” he said. “I’m more concerned, as an engineer, that it’s structurally compatible,” he said. “But the end of the job is the striping of the new road, making it look good.”

Public Works employees had to duct-tape commercial-grade insulation around the in- and out-flow pipes at the base of the tower that carry water to and from the holding tank.

“The inside of the tower is not heated and it can freeze just like your house freezes. They stopped insulation just above my head,” Carter said, gesturing to the point where the aluminum-wrapped insulation ended and the duct-taped insulation began. “Public Works had to install their own insulation so it doesn’t freeze over winter.”

New safety rigging that replaced the leather belts with a full harness that borough employees would use to scale the ladders were left incomplete.

“Our guys have been climbing ladders for year, but if (a safety harness) is required, it’s required for a reason,” he said.

Carter said another problem — a gaping hole cut through the center of the floor and its crossbeam — was created by the previous work. Presumably, he said, the hole was made to make it easier to hoist construction materials up the tower.

“Sometimes contractors figure it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission,” he said, with a shrug.

Wesley Beckett, the original contractor, did not respond to requests for comment and other phone numbers for his company have been disconnected. In a previous interview, he said work stopped because the city began withholding money for completed work. Carter said the borough was not satisfied with the quality or pace of the company’s work.

Mayor Nick Russo said the borough is still in negotiations with the contractor and his bonding company. So far, Longport has not filed suit against either.

“We want to take an aggressive position to recoup the money that we have out for unfinished work and we’ll see where that goes,” Russo said. “I don’t expect that to be resolved quickly.”

“We took the lowest bid, they had a decent track record and it just didn’t work out,” he added, comparing the borough’s experience to that of a private homeowner.

According to borough documents, Longport received five bids for the project in 2011 ranging from Beckett’s low bid of $598,500 to $977,000. The average of the five bids was $791,000.

While the 500,000-gallon water tower dates to 1967, its smiley face was added in 1982 by longtime Commissioner and former Mayor Howard Kupperman. Despite being one of the sponsors of Atlantic City’s casino legislation, Kupperman, who died in February at age 82, was perhaps best known for that addition to the tower.

“I guess it’s our signature,” Russo said. “It’s something that’s become a part of our identity.”

As he’s wont to do, local historian Mike Cohen keeps the smiley face kerfuffle in perspective.

“It makes Longport look like a happy town and we are happy,” he said. “If not for this, we wouldn’t have any reason to complain.”

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

609-272-7256

@wjmckelvey on Twitter

Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.