Stephanie Smith of Cape May takes a picture of bird at the Wetlands Institute in Middle Township.

The Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City, like a lot of tourist attractions in South Jersey, is operated by a nonprofit group.

But nonprofit does not mean unprofitable. More than 27,000 visitors pay $3 to $7 to climb the lighthouse's 228 steps each year.

Sparking interest in one of the nation's tallest lighthouses each year is a central preoccupation of its director, Jean Muchanic, of Egg Harbor Township.

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"We create a calendar of events and a guest experience that would be comparable to any tourist destination on the Boardwalk," she said.

When it comes to tourism, South Jersey's museums and nonprofit attractions play an important supporting role. It's a point the national amusement industry observed in its 2012 annual report.

"Museums represent a very important category in the leisure market," the Themed Entertainment Association said. "They compete for people's time and money in similar markets. They cater to families. They help drive tourism. And they play a cultural and economic role in their communities.

"Increasingly, museums are focusing on the guest experience, operations and marketing in ways that mirror commercial attractions."

Muchanic agrees museums are important drivers of tourism in South Jersey. And to be relevant, they have to market themselves like other tourist attractions, she said.

"That is our approach. Once we realized we had an important historic site to market to the Atlantic City visitor, we've approached our marketing as a for-profit business would," she said. Muchanic's background is in marketing.

The statewide tour of lighthouses called the Lighthouse Challenge on Oct. 19 and 20 will draw an estimated 1,800 people to Atlantic City. Events such as this one keep the nonprofit in the black, albeit modestly with a profit of just $21,000 last year.

"The economy in Atlantic City is driven not so much by historic sites as by what the casinos offer," she said. "It's hard to measure our economic impact here."

In Cape May County, historic museums and nonprofit attractions such as the Cape May Lighthouse, the Wetlands Institute and the Cape May Birds Observatory are major contributors to the county's $5 billion tourism industry, Tourism Director Diane Wieland said.

"If it's not a beach or boardwalk day, tourists are going to see the nonprofits. They offer an alternative to the beach or boardwalk and expand the diversity of attractions in our region," she said. "It gives people another compelling reason to return."

Among the county's attractions is the colonial town called Historic Cold Spring Village, the aviation museum Naval Air Station Wildwood and historic museums that dot most towns from Cape May to Ocean City.

The county's tourism surveys show visitors take advantage of these offerings, Wieland said.

"About 44 percent of our visitors visit historic attractions, and 25 percent take historic tours," she said.

"And we have culture vultures - people who come to the area to soak up as much of the culture as they can to get a better feel for the community," she said.

For these visitors, the county has nonprofits such as the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Ocean City Arts Center and the Cape May Stage, among others.

The Wetlands Institute on Stone Harbor Boulevard in Middle Township is open year-round with emphasis on the months when its sprawling marshes come alive with nesting ospreys, fishing egrets and fiddler crabs.

With a budget of about $1 million, the institute focuses on education and conservation, said spokeswoman Christine Mattera, of Middle Township.

"We're trying to inspire people to care about the coastal ecosystem," she said. "We give people a hands-on experience so they can learn about the environment and become stewards of the wetlands."

The institute is an especially popular destination on rainy days when its indoor displays and programs offer families an alternative to being cooped up in their summer home, she said.

Nonprofit attractions have taken a page out of small business in cross promotions, package deals and planned itineraries.

"We try to market ourselves as much as our budget as a nonprofit will allow," Mattera said. "We're working on something for next summer. We'd like to have some packages we can offer to guests of local campgrounds and hotels."

Despite the many free or low-cost tourism options that nonprofits provide, most businesses see them as partners, not competitors, said Vicki Clark, director of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.

"There is room for everyone to be profitable," she said. "From our perspective, it's important that we encourage people to cooperate … and see how you can partner with people instead of looking at them as competition for your own customers."

For example, New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory has its own gift shop that sells books and optics, but not food or lodging. And its programs draw an international audience to the county.

"You have specialty retail stores that have product lines that follow in the interests of those visitors - selling hats or rain gear or binoculars or offer kayaking tours or boat trips for birdwatching," she said. "There are lots of ways to capture that audience."

These attractions especially help local businesses in the spring and fall, Clark said.

"Our goal is to use these special events and museums and theater experiences to extend our season," Clark said.

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