CAPE MAY — A new convention center will be going up on the city’s beachfront but an old movie theater will be coming down, city officials said Tuesday.

City Council awarded a $7.5 million contract Tuesday to a Vineland firm to construct a new convention facility on the beachfront. And City Solicitor Tony Monzo announced the settlement of a lawsuit that will allow Frank Investments to demolish the Beach Theatre across the street from the convention facility.

The company plans to construct condominiums, but a debate over whether the movie theater built in 1950 was a historic building had held up the project.

The awarding of a contract to construct a new hall comes after three years of waiting. Structural problems closed the old hall in April 2008 and shorefront businesses have been devastated.

Arthur J. Ogren Inc. of Vineland submitted the low bid at $7,523,000 and was awarded the contract. During the public portion of the meeting several residents praised council for its progress.

“I’m glad to see it finally coming to fruition. I paid my second-quarter taxes today and I feel I’ve gotten something for my money,” Washington Street resident John Fleming said.

Terry Shields, a local resident and Beach Avenue businessman, said he wanted a larger hall but thanked council for finally moving forward.

It took four rounds of bids and a major downsizing of the project, originally envisioned as a two-story, 32,000-square-foot building. It is now one-story and about 20,000 square feet.

Voters approved only $10.5 million for the project and various amenities have already been lopped off as the spending limit also must cover demolition of the old hall, piling, engineering, architectural design and other costs.

City Manager Bruce MacLeod on Tuesday announced the geothermal heating and cooling system was scrapped to save $450,000. The city also did not accept alternate bids by Arthur J. Ogren to cover furniture, kitchen equipment, stage lighting, interior wall configurations, barriers for roller skating, landscaping, chair systems and other work. That will be bid separately in an attempt to save money.

“Do we have enough money?” Shields asked.

Mayor Ed Mahaney said funding is sufficient and the timetable is set for a Memorial Day 2012 opening.

“We have enough to complete convention hall and open it fully operational with all the necessities we need including furniture,” Mahaney said.

MacLeod said some previous bids came in higher than the available funding so the city had to make some “extremely hard and difficult decisions.” Mahaney said the first events, including the 2012 Lower Cape May Regional High School prom, are already being discussed.

Officials said they hope to solve the blight left by the vacant movie theater, to compliment the hall project. After being denied a permit to demolish by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, Frank Investments appealed to the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Several hearings have already taken place amid a heated debate on whether the building is historic.

Monzo said the settlement ends the lawsuit Frank Investments filed against the city and ends the Zoning Board hearings.

“It will open the door to new development that will compliment rather than detract from the convention hall facility,” Monzo said.

Some residents were surprised by council’s unanimous decision to overrule its own HPC, which voted against a demolition permit, and to remove the issue from the Zoning Board. The HPC and the Planning Board have previously ruled it an historic building. The Beach Theatre Foundation, a group trying to save the movie house, previously asked council to declare it historic, but officials had said the city would instead await the Zoning Board decision.

“Are you overstepping the authority of the Zoning Board?” asked Jerry Gaffney, a former mayor.

“It will make the Zoning Board hearings moot. Council is the authority. Technically, the applicant will need to withdraw the appeal,” Monzo said.

Shields, who has a business yards from the theater and said he has attended movies there since the 1950s, said he was shocked by the decision.

“I’ve heard 18 to 24 hours of testimony from experts deeming it historic and this pretty much chops it off,” Shields said.

Frank Investments filed suit in March in New Jersey Superior Court against the city claiming local officials told them an earlier demolition approval was automatically extended by New Jersey’s Permit Extension Act of 2008. But it turned out that the act did not apply to the city because it was put in an environmentally sensitive planning area by the state.

The HPC voted 4-3 against demolition in April 2007 but reversed itself in a 4-3 vote for approval in June 2007. The Franks said they delayed the demolition when told the permit was extended by the state law. When they found out the state law did not pertain to Cape May, they went back to the HPC and demolition was denied by a 5-2 vote in January 2010.

Monzo noted the building is not on national or state registers of historic buildings and is not even listed as an historic building under local ordinance. Monzo said the council decision to settle the lawsuit will allow Construction Official William Callahan to issue a demolition permit.

Frank Investments does not intend to demolish retail stores connected with the theater, but would tear down the movie auditorium and build six condominium apartments.

Contact Richard Degener:


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