Skeptics howled at the idea of building a skating rink in Wildwood, but the communities of Five Mile Beach have considered all kinds of proposals, and tried stranger things, in a bid to stand out and draw more visitors.
Over the years, the island has considered everything from Indian casinos (something that never materialized) to eliminating traffic on Pacific Avenue for a pedestrian mall (something that materialized and failed) to creating a giant Wildwoods sign reminiscent of the Hollywood sign, only with colorful concrete beach balls (something that has been incredibly successful).
Minor-league baseball almost came to North Wildwood. If it had, the team’s home stadium would have been built on a old landfill.
Rebuffed, North Wildwood officials sold the land, which was used to develop a residential high-rise development, although Mayor Aldo Palombo still can’t help but think about what might have been.
“Even to this day, I have people saying we should have gotten baseball,” Palombo said.
In the mid 1990s, Palombo said the city had a minor league team lined up. A funding plan that would have used a portion of the state’s sales tax to build a 5,200-seat baseball stadium on the city’s former Anglesea landfill made it all the way to the Legislature, but then-Gov. Christie Whitman refused to sign the funding bill into law.
The housing development brought ratables, but Palombo still likes the idea of trying something new.
“Anything different that adds to your community is good,” Palombo said.
And different describes ideas that range from planned high-rise hotels still waiting to be built across Wildwood to the dinner theater that once sat along New Jersey Avenue.
Being on the cutting edge is what the Wildwoods have also been about, and that means some ideas may flop, or be dismissed.
“There are things that are before their time,” said Al Brannen, an island resident since the 1960s and a member of the Wildwood Historical Society. “It’s not that they are bad ideas. It’s that they’re looking too far into the future.”
But thinking big can lead to big returns, too.
Brannen recalled seeing a picture of the Wildwoods sign on a recent trip to a diner in Cherry Hill, Camden County.
“You walk in the diner, and there’s Wildwood on the wall. That’s priceless,” Brannen said of the way the sign has worked as a marketing tool.
Brannen said the Wildwoods are not unique in the search for the next big draw.
“Everytown, USA is our competitor now,” he said as towns look for ways to create interest. “We’re all competing for the same dollar.”
True, but each town tries to present a unique side, or brand, for what it has to offer.
Jack Morey, executive vice president of Morey’s Piers, listed the island’s physical brand as its over-sized beach, collection of mid-century motels and its attraction-packed Boardwalk.
Emotionally, he said, the island evokes a certain feeling: “It’s footloose and fancy free.”
“So things like the (Wildwoods) sign … it’s large and in your face, but there’s design to it, a certain sophistication to its tackiness,” Morey said.
He pointed to the casino as an idea he believes would not have been consistent with the physical and emotional attributes of the Wildwoods, but he said the baseball stadium might have been a fit.
“Not every good idea works,” he said.
Morey said the pier operator once considered putting general admission gates at the front of the piers rather than having them wide open as they are today.
The idea was deemed a bad fit for the piers and the free-flowing Boardwalk that feeds them.
Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. credited those who built the island’s Boardwalk, which marked its 100th anniversary in 2000, as people who knew a good thing when they saw it.
“They were Boardwalk people. They knew it would work,” Troiano said of the island’s best known man-made attraction.
In the meantime, the ice skating rink or some other recreational use for downtown Wildwood is still on the drawing board.
Brannen, a former city commissioner, said he was not a fan of the ice rink concept, but he credited those behind it with coming up with new ideas.
“It gets a little press and it gets people thinking. That’s a good thing,” Brannen said.
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