When Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano needed money for public improvement projects in recent years, he often turned to the South Jersey Economic Development District.

He usually got the necessary funding.

“They helped us with the Boardwalk, some street projects, energy savings in buildings and some building issues in City Hall. They were very helpful to us. We got a number of grants from them. I’d hate like hell to see it die,” said Troiano.

The board that oversees the SJEDD has drawn $60 million in grants to the region over the past decade, but its future has become cloudy of late. Earlier this year, the district voted out longtime Executive Director Gordon Dahl after a number of financial problems were found, most related to a $7 million plan to develop the NextGen Aviation Research and Technology Park. This led to more than $1 million in debt, the closing of the main office in Millville and letting employees go.

But local mayors, including a number in Cape May County, are rooting for the financially troubled agency to survive problems related to the development of the aviation park in Atlantic County.

North Wildwood Mayor William Henfey is also a big believer in the SJEDD. His town has received about $15 million over the past seven years to rebuild streets, curbs, sewer lines and do other work. The district draws grant money from federal sources, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Economic Development Administration, as well as state funding through agencies such as the Department of Community Affairs.

“It really helped us get a handle on our roads. Sewer pipes were breaking under our roads. Without them, small towns like us just wouldn’t be able to tackle big jobs. It’s been a great boon for us,” Henfey said.

SJEDD Interim Executive Director Steve O’Connor is trying to save the organization that has served Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland and Salem counties since 1979.

Officials in Cape May County argue the good outweighs the bad and that the district should be saved.

Sea Isle City Mayor Len Desiderio sits on the district’s board as one of two freeholders from each county who serve on it. He said the board has done some great things for the region but that the NextGen project was “just too much.”

They needed tenants and the recession hit, so they couldn’t get them,” Desiderio said.

He said the district drew $60 million in grants for the four-county area between 2000 and 2010.

“This is a great organization for South Jersey that has done some wonderful things. Everybody is working to get it back to its former health, where it helped communities, counties and small businesses,” Desiderio said.

An immediate issue is the number of grants that were not being properly administered as the district fell into chaos. This includes grants for two projects in Sea Isle. The problem was uncovered when boxes of paperwork in the district’s now-closed Millville office were retrieved.

Desiderio said that once Dahl was let go, some of the work was not being done and some grants could have been lost. The district is putting out a request for proposals for a grant writer and hired Vineland-based Triad Associates for a three-month period, on an hourly basis but with total costs not to exceed $16,900, to begin clearing up the problem.

O’Connor said none of the grants will be lost but that somebody is needed to administer them. Local grant writers have stepped forward in some cases. Colleen Crippen, who writes grants for Lower Township, took over administration of a $400,000 grant for Naval Air Station Wildwood to make disabled-access improvements. In some cases, the district is still owed money for work it did on grants. O’Connor said this money would be collected and used to pay Triad Associates.

“This was an emergency. We had to get these ongoing projects taken care of,” O’Connor said.

In the future, a firm will be hired to handle the job permanently with a straight annual fee, an hourly rate or revenue from the grants, O’Connor said. An administrator is a requirement for many grants.

“They all could have been in jeopardy if the district didn’t hire Triad,” O’Connor said.

That was one issue. O’Connor notes another is to simply stay in existence, and that means dealing with debt.

“In the next two to three weeks, it will be determined how debt is paid, over $1 million between NextGen and federal loans,” O’Connor said.

Dissolving would trigger repayment of more than $500,000 owned to the USDA and EDA, he noted.

The district was formed to band the most economically distressed counties in the state together to draw grants, since regional entities get preference under many grant programs.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711