EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Five months ago, Sangita Patel would have entertained an offer to buy out her hurricane-ravaged 48-room motel in West Atlantic City.
Now, after $165,000 to repair the damage to the New Sea Breeze Motel caused by Hurricane Sandy’s chest-high waters, she thinks otherwise.
“If they want to buy, why (should I) spend the money?” Patel asked.
Buying and demolishing the low-rent motels strung out along the Black Horse Pike has been a longtime goal of local tourism officials. The widespread damage from last fall’s hurricane has depressed property values, making it more likely that local officials would be able to do so. Still, some motel owners such as Patel may have grown more committed to operating there.
“We can’t buy them all,” Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough said this week, “only five or six of them.”
The township formally issued a request for proposals this week, seeking appraisal services to evaluate the motels’ worth. The document identifies 13 smaller motels, averaging 23 rooms apiece, and the site of the former Hickory Log restaurant, closed for about a dozen years.
Egg Harbor Township already owns one property, of about two acres, but appears focused on the motels and restaurant. It did not target for acquisition other nearby properties, including a gas station, warehouse and several vacant land tracts.
The 16 targeted tracts run for about a mile along the north side of the road, totaling just more than 10 acres and cumulatively assessed at $9.4 million after last year’s townshipwide revaluation. In all, they account for about 0.2 percent of the township’s $4.1 billion tax base.
Last year’s revaluation essentially doubled the taxes the motels were cumulatively expected to pay, township tax records show, from $197,492 in 2012 to $394,988 this year.
The township’s request seeks appraisers to provide reports that allow the township to provide “just compensation,” as well as support any eminent-domain proceedings. Appraisers should provide original, interior and exterior photos, a location map and a list of comparable properties. Appraisers would be paid per property, based on their bids.
Bids are due at the township by May 21. The township would likely award the contract to the winning bidder by the May 29 meeting, township Administrator Peter J. Miller said, and the work would take place over the summer.
“By Sept. 1, we should have appraisals in hand,” Miller said.
Appraisals will be paid out of a $3 million grant authorized by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority in 2005. The money pre-dates the current era, in which the agency is restricted to funding Atlantic City projects. CRDA Deputy Executive Director Susan Ney Thompson said the township already has used $275,000 from the grant to develop its West Atlantic City redevelopment plan.
Even though the township revalued its properties last year, Miller said, the CRDA requested formal appraisals because they are more rigorous and thorough, and better able to hold up in a court challenge. The CRDA proposed the township acquire and sell the land, Thompson said, then use the sale money to buy other properties.
The CRDA wanted redevelopment, Thompson said, because “it would address the disheveled nature of the properties along the entry corridor” and would advance the Tourism District objectives by building economic development and creating jobs.
The township and CRDA have long sought to buy up and demolish the motels.
The CRDA initially proposed spending $10 million in the late 1990s for the township to buy the properties, and the township ordered assessments. But the project fell through in 2002 when the CRDA could not secure the funds.
The authority then authorized the current grant in 2005, and the township ordered a redevelopment study of the area. The 2008 study found the Bayview District to be in need of rehabilitation, one of the first steps toward eminent domain proceedings.
The study and the township master plan essentially envisioned replacing the motels with more up-market facilities. As a result, the possibility exists that the township could take motels by eminent domain to sell them to hotel developers. According to the current master plan, “Hotel construction would be ideal along this corridor because of the close proximity to Atlantic City and resulting tax revenue that could be generated without school-aged children.”
Hurricane Sandy would seem to have made it more possible for the township to finally act. The late October storm devastated the small, family-run businesses, with storm water washing through practically all of the motel rooms. Even today, more than five months on, the businesses remain a mixture of open and closed, under repair and devastated.
Many of the motels this week sported weathered placards from the township Division of Inspections stating they were unsafe, and needing plumbing, electrical or building work.
At the 33-room Economy Inn, owner Retul Patel did not respond to requests for comment. Employees described the property as partially open, starting last month, with ongoing repairs to other rooms.
At the New Sea Breeze Motel, festooned with a large sign saying “Sandy Didn’t Beat Us,” Patel proudly pointed to a framed picture of the battered property before she bought it in 2003, showing how far she has brought it. The motel fully reopened March 15, she said.
However, at the nearby Golden Key motel, the 27 rooms were stripped of furnishings, and ripped yellow police caution tape fluttered from leafless trees. The smell of mold wafted from behind the clerk’s desk, and faded signs directed people to the nearby Star Motel.
At the Star Motel, doors stood wide open, and the 24 rooms were in different states of repair.
In some rooms, last fall’s high water line was still visible on the aged wallpaper. In others, a fresh coat of chocolate-brown paint overlaid repaired walls and electrical fixtures, and new tile led from the bathrooms.
“Right now, we are starting again,” said Mick Mak, who identified himself as the owner. The storm ravaged the property, tearing down its sign and shoving equipment across the grounds.
He pointed to a bench in the center of the parking lot. “That bench was here,” he said, pointing to a space about 20 feet away.
“We are trying to get back,” Mak said, and blamed piecemeal visits by township inspectors, higher taxes, recalcitrant insurers and utility costs with holding back renovations.
But he indicated he would consider being bought out.
“Give us what we need. Make an offer,” he said.
Contact Derek Harper:
Follow @dnharper on Twitter