Take a minute to think of the wealthiest places in the state and you may not think of the small Upper Township enclave of Strathmere.
But the U.S. Census' American Community Survey states that the neighborhood with the fourth-highest median household income in the entire state is tiny Strathmere, the two-block-wide strip of homes at the northern end of the same island as Sea Isle City. It trails only two suburban North Jersey towns and a waterfront neighborhood across from New York City.
At about $183,000, Strathmere's median household income, based on the latest five-year estimate, is more than six times Atlantic City's figure of $28,500, which is the 10th-lowest median income in the state.
Despite their similar roots as beach resorts, the towns went in very different directions. While boarding houses gave way to grand hotels in Atlantic City, Strathmere — which was only given a name in 1912 — still maintains an atmosphere of rolling dunes and beach cottages.
But these days, homes sell for as much as $1.1 million along Commonwealth Avenue, the main drag in town.
So is the town really as wealthy as the census would suggest?
Strathmere itself, isolated from the rest of Upper Township, has only about 183 full-time residents, compared with the hundreds more who descend on the town when the weather gets warm.
None was to be seen on recent, rainy winter Monday, when the Deauville Inn was closed until Thursday and the small post office had a sign proclaiming that it was closed for lunch. The postmaster, though, wasn't hard to find — he had just walked over to the firehouse next door.
"I'm not a resident," said Gene Summers, of Dennis Township across the bay. Of the town's high rank in terms of median income, "I don't see it," Summers said. "It doesn't make sense to everyone in town. I know there are people here with a whole lot of money in the summertime, but year-round residents? It's mostly just regular, working-class people."
Debbie Vandegrift called the idea of a $183,000 median income “ridiculous.”
“(This is) the town I grew up in and that my grandfather ran a hotel in from the 1800s,” Vandegrift said. “That’s not true about year-round residents at all. I don’t know about the people who have come into town since then, but when it comes to year-round residents that’s totally out of whack.”
For his part, Upper Township Mayor Richard Palombo said that "I do know a number of principal homeowners in Strathmere. A lot of folks have been there along time. But what their income is?"
Upper Township is coming off a years-long battle with several Strathmere residents over whether the neighborhood should secede and join with Sea Isle City to the south. The New Jersey Supreme Court chose not to hear an appeal from The Citizens for Strathmere and Whale Beach in January, ending a fight that began in 2008.
So for the immediate future, at least, Strathmere will remain a part of Upper Township, where the median income overall stands at about $78,000, more than $100,000 less than Strathmere alone.
"There are also a number of folks with second houses," Palombo said, "and from my perspective, you don't look at incomes when (talking) about continuing to be a part of the township. ... Obviously they have impressive homes there, but there's not a prerequisite for ownership."
Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College, said that it was possible that some second homeowners may list Strathmere as their primary residence for tax purposes, inflating the median number.
Another thing to remember, Perniciaro said, is that yearly income numbers include wealth, not just salary.
"A lot of income is wealth and assets people own," he said. "... Stocks and bonds. Even pensions come in there. In Strathmere, people have accumulated wealth and assets over time."
In addition, in places like Strathmere, "wealth is handed down from generation to generation," he said. "In this country, we don't tax wealth, we tax income. And once an individual or family accumulates a great deal of wealth, they tend to keep it."
But that doesn’t mean the town does not have its issues, namely, recovery from Hurricane Sandy and the impact of new advisory flood maps from FEMA — which many local officials have said could make it too expensive for many longtime residents to keep living at the shore.
So while many beachfront towns already have small year-round populations and see a massive influx of summer residents, the ratio of year-round to seasonal residents may become even more lopsided up and down the shore — to the point where maybe one day all of the Jersey Shore could have the same demographics as Strathmere.
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