LOWER TOWNSHIP — The name doesn’t look good on a sweatshirt. That’s one reason a local marina sells itself as being across the border in Cape May.
“We’re in the hospitality business. The Cape May brand is recognizable, and I use it. We don’t sell ourselves as Lower Township. It’s not something I can see across a sweatshirt,” said Rick Weber, who owns South Jersey Marina on Schellengers Landing.
Weber is on a new economic development committee trying to come up with ways to combat the township’s chronically high unemployment rate. The committee issued a preliminary report this week to Township Council, and one idea to boost the economy is to change the name of Lower Township, possibly to Cape May Township.
“Whether it’s Cape May, I don’t know, but Lower Township isn’t it,” Weber said.
Ernie Utsch, another committee member and Schellengers Landing marina owner, noted that many township landmarks already carry the Cape May name. The Cape May Canal, Cape May Lighthouse, Cape May Inlet, Cape May Harbor and Cape May-Lewes Ferry are located, all or in part, in Lower Township. The Port of Cape May, which is the second largest fishing port on the East Coast, is also in the township.
Utsch pointed out numerous businesses in the township that have Cape May in their name. The committee, in fact, is boosting a local oyster business that grows a brand called Cape May Salts and a new craft beer maker at the Cape May Airport — which is also located in Lower Township — called Cape May Brewing Co.
“It’s an identity that is recognizable. Lower Township is not recognizable. Brand names are so important. I think the township has to look at changing it from Lower Township to Cape May Township,” Utsch said.
Deputy Mayor Norris Clark, who chaired the committee, supports the idea.
“You can’t enter or leave Cape May without going through Lower Township. We are the Exit O,” Clark said.
Utsch said he would like to see voters decide via a referendum question. Township Attorney Charles Sandman said it could be done instantly through a binding referendum, or a nonbinding referendum could be used to gauge public opinion, leaving it up to council whether to change the name by ordinance.
It’s too late to get anything on the ballot for the November election.
The issue isn’t new. Two mayors who served in the 1980s, Peggie Bieberbach and Robert Fothergill, both promoted changing Lower’s name to Cape May Township. Fothergill, a Cresse Lane resident, recalled the “old guard” fighting the idea. Lower Township was incorporated in 1798 and evolved from the Lower Precinct created during English rule in 1723. That’s a lot of history to erase.
“I was for it because it gave us more recognition in the state, and nationally, and of course we were desperate to develop the tourist industry. It would have helped tie us to Cape May, which is world renowned,” Fothergill said.
One worry is how Cape May might react.
“We’d be stealing their brand,” Councilman Jim Neville said.
Sandman, however, said Cape May County predates the city of Cape May.
“We’d be stealing the name from Cape May County,” Sandman said.
The name originated with Dutch sea captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, who sailed by in 1623 but did not settle here. The Dutch West India Co. in 1630 purchased the land from native Lenape Indians, and the name started appearing on maps as early as 1651.
Cape May County was created in 1692.
Lower Township evolved from the precincts formed April 2, 1723, that divided the county by religion. The Upper Precinct was Quaker, Middle Precinct was Baptist and the Lower Precinct was Presbyterian.
Cape Island, later renamed Cape May City, broke off from the township in 1848. The township later spawned Cape May Point, West Cape May, Wildwood Crest and Holly Beach (Wildwood), while the towns of South Cape May and North Cape May broke off but came back into the township.
Cape May Mayor Ed Mahaney said he does not have a problem with sharing the name. Mahaney said the decision should be made by Lower Township Council with input from the township taxpayers.
“That’s their decision. Whatever they decide to do, Cape May will continue to work with them cooperatively so we all achieve a quality of life and economic stability,” Mahaney said.
The name change was only one of the ideas the committee came up with. Others ranged from tax abatements to spawn new businesses at the Cape May Airport in Erma to figuring out a way to market the dredge spoils excavated from the township’s many waterways and 15 marinas.
Contact Richard Degener: