Conversation with Jean Muchanic

A conversation with Jean Muchanic, Executive Director of Absecon Lighthouse

Edward Lea

Jean Muchanic, 55, has been executive director of Absecon Lighthouse since January 2005. Before that, she worked as tournament coordinator for the ShopRite LPGA Classic and as internal communications manager at Showboat Casino Hotel.

Q: How did you get involved in running the lighthouse?

A: I was on the board of trustees for the Absecon Lighthouse for two or three years. At the time I was involved in the ShopRite LPGA Classic, but I was a volunteer here, and when the position became open, the board - just from knowing each other - knew I had a marketing background. I guess we thought that it was time to take the marketing to the next level, so I was offered the position, and I accepted.

Q: Were you a lighthouse fan before you got involved?

A: I've been raised on the Jersey Shore my whole life. I worked at Showboat for 14 years. The employees' parking lot was a few blocks away, and walking to work every day I would always look left and check out the Absecon Lighthouse. ... I got to see the moonrises over the ocean and the sunrise over the lighthouse and, yes, you can say I am a lighthouse lover.

Q: The lighthouse is one of the most visible noncasino tourist attractions in the city. What kind of challenges come with operating a family attraction in a casino town?

A: I just got finished writing a grant for the New Jersey Historic Commission ... and we are asked to identify challenges within our own marketplace for running a historic site. I write things like, "It is really hard to compete with Beyonce, Madonna, top chef restaurants, all these different entertainment and food options, gorgeous hotels." Our biggest obstacle, naturally, we are two blocks from the Boardwalk, so we are not on the main thoroughfare of Atlantic City. We were four blocks north of Showboat, now we are about one or two blocks north of the last casino - so it's a matter of getting people to walk a little farther and to learn about Absecon Lighthouse.

Q: There are lighthouses all over the New Jersey shore. Is being in Atlantic City a help or hindrance to your operation?

A: I would say it is a huge help. We're actually not visited as much as the state parks of Cape May and Barnegat Light. Our website and the Internet have been a blessing. People Google "What can I do while I'm in Atlantic City." Being that our name begins with an A and we have really good Google presence - we have all the correct metawords on there - we pop up first for a lot of Google searches that people make, so they do find us via the Internet.

Q: Do you have much of a marketing budget?

A: (Laughs) That's funny. No, we do not have a large marketing budget at all. It's only $10,000 annually. ... So what I tried to do from the very beginning was to go with events and go with experiences at Absecon Lighthouse that are maybe a little different than what is out there in the museum marketplace, so people hear about it, and local press people pick up on what we are doing here and I get the benefit sometimes of having a little event listed in the paper that draws attention to the lighthouse.

Q: Do you think that is the case with other nonprofit organizations? Do they find themselves in the same spot?

A: Oh, I do. ... Hurricane Irene in 2011 and then Hurricane Sandy really cut into our revenues, so I think that everybody understands that we have to try so hard just to stand out in the marketplace. Me, mainly, I like to reach more of the local market, because I can't tell you the number of times that people come here and say, "Oh, we grew up in the Inlet," (or) "Oh, we climbed the lighthouse when I was a kid." Then I always say, "Did you make out with your girlfriend at the top?" It's just fun. People have memories and experiences of Absecon Lighthouse, and so, if I could capture people who want to revisit those memories and just tell them, "Come over here and visit," because everyone comes with a memory, especially the local people.

Q: There has been a marked increase in recent years to market the city and to change its image. Are you benefiting from that at all?

A: Absolutely, without a doubt. ... I count ourselves extremely lucky to be in partnerships with the Atlantic City Alliance, the CRDA (Casino Reinvestment Development Authority) and the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority. These three entities in my mind are so crucial for marketing and benefiting Absecon Lighthouse. There's a new commercial that is coming out, a new ad campaign by the Atlantic City Alliance ... and there is an image of Absecon Lighthouse and there is a beautiful couple standing at the top right next to the first-order Fresnel lens, so for that reason we are lucky. The ACCVA provides many marketing services for us, pushing through a lot of our press releases, doing some design work for us for different invitations and events. The CRDA is a wonderful source for us. They assisted in helping repair our porch last year, which was really dilapidated and a huge liability for us. I consider those three entities just superb and very crucial for our existence.

Q: As casino competition has increased over the years in different areas, there has been a lot of talk about how Atlantic City needs to increase its noncasino attractions to draw more visitors here. Are you finding the casinos in the city support you?

A: Absolutely ... Revel Entertainment, our new neighbor, had their Community Gaming Night last year in March, and they dedicated funds that were made during those - I think it was two or three evenings - and I think they picked about four nonprofits in the 1st and the 2nd wards of Atlantic City, and we were fortunate enough to be a recipient of a portion of their funding from those charity evenings. That made the difference between us having an incredibly tough winter and us being able to at least pay most of our staff and our bills through the winter. We are now coming out of an extremely tough winter. ... Everybody I think has been feeling the struggle a little, but they are still really strong community partners.

Q: If someone or some agency could do one thing to help you and other family attractions in the city, what would you say?

A: One thing is ... let everyone know that we have a fun place to visit, and within that fun place to visit are museums and historic sites and things like that. I think, get the people here, and then we can make it happen.

Q: Can you give me an idea of a program or a marketing campaign that you did that really surprised you, that was really successful for you?

A: I would say the thing I was most happy about is increasing visitation by 120 percent and doing that with really taking the arm and reaching into a lot of different corners for new business - couponing with a lot of different agencies - NJ Transit, AAA ... mobile coupons. ... I think there was one year I attended like 166 different events just to talk about Absecon lighthouse. I will go and speak at any luncheon, and I think just being out there in the community and just letting people know that we are here has helped tremendously.

Q: What is your annual visitor rate now?

A: We're at about 27,000. ... Our top was in 2010 - 29,000 - and to compare that, Cape May gets 75,000 to 100,000 a year - their location is right on the beach. I know if we were right up there on that Boardwalk, that we would get that and probably many thousands more visitors.

Q: You are a licensed minister, aren't you? How did that come about?

A: We had always offered the lighthouse as a host site for a wedding, and it was the third time ... somebody asked me in the course of the conversation about booking a wedding, "And do you know of anybody who can marry us?" And I hung up the phone and I said to myself, "I have to figure out a way to say yes to that question," and so I decided that I would be the person to say yes to that question. ... I went online, as many people do. It's all official. It's through an organization called Rose Ministries ... and I thought that was a good fit for me, so I went ahead and got my minister's license with them.

Q: You get visitors from all over the world coming to the lighthouse, you get visitors from all over the state and all over the country, too. What do you hear them saying about Atlantic City, and based on those comments, what would you tell the people in charge of the city and in charge of the casinos to think about?

A: We have volunteers who work at the lighthouse, and we absolutely couldn't do it without them. One of the shifts is at the top of the lighthouse, and they just come down and report - especially for the foreign travelers - they love the city, they love their views, they love the ocean. Some people have never seen the Atlantic Ocean before. Some people ask where the Boardwalk is ... so we are able to direct them up on the Boardwalk and to the ocean.

Q: The show "Ghost Hunters" visited in 2010. Was that a marketing stunt or was that a real paranormal investigation?

A: That was not a marketing stunt. What happened is we have had some various experiences, both from staff and volunteers and even some of the construction crew that was here restoring the lighthouse and building the keeper's cottage. Our director of education at the time, Stephanie Carr, was a fan of the show. She was like, "You know this would be a really good site," and I was like, "Go for it."

Q: Are you still getting people who come here because of the show?

A: They run repeats, so we still occasionally get people to come in and say, "Oh, I saw you on 'Ghost Hunters.' " So, it's fun.

Q: In 1988, the Inlet Public Private Association adopted the Absecon Lighthouse. Back then, it was hoped that the lighthouse would sort of signify the rebirth of the Inlet section. How successful has that been so far?

A: You know, (it has been) really successful from the Inlet Public Private Association's goal of restoring Absecon Lighthouse. It's a two-acre site. It's a state-owned property. It's now a beautiful destination - manicured lawns, a beautiful resorted lighthouse and keeper's cottage. Around us are some challenging buildings that are run down, some empty lots. Revel is a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. It's beautiful ... and that is a beautiful structure right here in the Inlet. I know there are other plans. We're in touch with CRDA on other plans to develop the Inlet section. There is a lighthouse park that is being planned here, some green space for the zone. There is talk that some of these empty lots are available for business development, for other companies and shops and eateries to develop the Inlet section of Atlantic City, so I look to the five-year plan as potential development. You know, everyone wants things to happen overnight. I'm saying let's look again in five years and evaluate where we were when the Tourism District got started and where we are five years later. I do anticipate seeing the Inlet very well developed by that point.

Q: If there was one thing that could kick-start redevelopment of the Inlet, what would that be?

A: Well, Lighthouse Park seems to be on the books and moving along. There has been land already purchased for that ... right across the street from us. The other thing that the CRDA is supporting us with is an egress point from the Boardwalk called Lighthouse Lane, so that at the end of Revel Entertainment, when you hit Rhode Island Avenue, there's going to be a point where you say, "OK, this is where I exit to go see Absecon Lighthouse." ... There will be some sort of structure and pivotal point, where you will turn off the Boardwalk and, pretty much, like a wayfinding down the two blocks - maybe some historical notes or pavers or markers along the way to bring people here. I think that would be something for us, a very personal goal right away. They also have done a magnificent job keeping this whole district clean. We are part of the Tourism District ... and their ambassadors, they are on site, they are walking around, they are on bikes, they're visiting us, they're coming here with new ambassadors whom we educate ... about the lighthouse and what's going on here.

Q: It was reported in recent months that you are working without pay. Is that true?

A: That is true. That happened over the winter, because we needed our funds in the bank to pay utilities and pay other staff. It's not because I'm independently wealthy. I'm one of those people, I'd still like to hit the lottery. But I had enough savings - and I got that pretty bare to the bones as well - but I was able to pay for two mortgage payments and two car payments and I was able to make it for myself. I am now in a position where business is starting to flow again and I am able to cash some paychecks.

Q: Any other money-saving things you did over the winter?

A: We don't have any lights on in the office. I don't turn the lights on, ever. Even down in the museum, if it's a slow period, I'm running around turning all the lights off. We used to burn the light at the top of the lighthouse all through the night - it's very pretty and, you know, it's a 24-hour gambling town. We turn the light off at midnight now to save electricity. We, I guess, just generally try to be very frugal about everything. That's all I can say.

Q: Any hope in the future for more funding for you?

A: I think we were on track to really survive last winter, and I could never say "poor us" when there are people who lost their homes and everything through Sandy. So with the efforts that are being made by the organizations in Atlantic City, along with the city itself, along with the myriad support that we get, I would say we are on track to have a winning summer. I'm going to say I believe we're going to make it through without the same kind of problems this coming winter.

Contact Steven V. Cronin:


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