Cyka Kowenski, 88, of Atlantic City, a Holocaust survivor, speaks at a gathering of memorial board members at City Hall.

Steve Lemongello

ATLANTIC CITY - Every project has its deadlines, but the Atlantic City Boardwalk Holocaust Memorial may have one of the hardest.

"Please," survivor Cyla Kowenski, 88, of Atlantic City, told the memorial committee last week. "I would like to have it done in my lifetime."

Seven years have passed since Atlantic City Council first approved a proposal to create a memorial to the millions killed in the Holocaust, and it has been more than three years since a panel of esteemed architects selected the design for the site at New York Avenue and the Boardwalk.

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A "challenge grant" from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, announced last February, would award the committee $1 million if it could raise an additional $2 million within three years.

Now, with two years left to go - and after a sign informing passers-by that construction would begin in 2013 stood next to the site for months - board members are hopeful that new strategies and potential donors will put "shovels in the ground" in 2014.

"We had hoped to start construction (last) year," said memorial chairman Rabbi Gordon Geller, of Temple Emeth Shalom in Margate. "Obviously, we haven't raised the contributions and funds needed to do it."

Since its inception, the committee has raised tens of thousands of dollars, with a peak of more than $120,000 raised in 2010. But expenses, including $25,000 to conduct the design competition, along with drops in revenue - the committee took in only $8,429 in 2012, the last year that nonprofit 990 forms are available - have left the committee far short of its goals.

However, Geller said, "there have been a number of developments."

At a recent gathering of board members in Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian's office, Geller listed some of the updates he had also discussed with The Press of Atlantic City.

"We have a major South Jersey donor we're meeting with now," Geller told The Press. He told board members that this donor is currently in Florida, and that Kirk Wisemayer, campaign director of the Jewish Federation of Atlantic & Cape May Counties, has personally traveled to meet with the person.

In addition, Geller said that because of the CRDA challenge grant, "We have been able to begin negotiations with a well-known personage in the area who will serve as general chair. We have not had a general chair, and that's essential for a campaign."

Geller added that the person was "prominent in the local Jewish community."

Wealthy people, Geller said, "want someone on their economic level to talk to, and obviously I can't approach them from that point of view."

Another development is the committee's hiring of the Philadelphia-based EHL Consulting Group, which assists nonprofits in fundraising. Geller said that EHL Managing Director Robert Evans has helped in garnering "significant" pledges from several donors - adding that once construction begins, he expects even larger contributions.

"We've heard from three or four major donors," Geller reported, "who said, 'Rabbi, you get the bulldozers on the site and we will write the check.'"

Evans receives a monthly remuneration and does not take any percentage of pledges or of the project, Geller said.

"He believes it shouldn't be like a commission," said Geller, who added that Evans prefers his monthly fee remain private.

The final development, Geller said, was the election of Guardian, who agreed last week to be the memorial's honorary chair, as former Mayor Lorenzo Langford was before him. Guardian, the former head of the city's nonprofit Special Improvement District, has been a supporter of the project from the beginning, Geller said.

"Absolutely," Guardian said when asked to be honorary chair. "It's an honor."

Memorial board member Kaleem Shabazz, of Masjid Muhammad in Atlantic City, thanked Langford for his help and said the board was "excited about the energy (Guardian) brings."

Architects Patrick Lausell and Paola Marquez, of Somerville, Mass., who created the winning design "Fractured Landscapes" - evoking a section of Boardwalk that has been "buckled and broken" - will be consultants in the project, Geller said. The design will be implemented by local architects.

But if for some reason the committee fails to meet the CRDA's February 2016 deadline, will the challenge grant be renewable?

"Everything is evaluated on a case-by-case basis," CRDA spokeswoman Kim Butler said. "There are a lot of other factors and a lot of partners involved, and it depends on what the 'ask' would be."

The challenge grant, she added, was the first one ever issued by the CRDA, "a unique opportunity obviously based upon the partnership with the city" - where the Tourism District, which includes the Boardwalk, is overseen by the CRDA - "and the partners involved with the memorial."

The action the CRDA board has taken involves granting preliminary eligibility of the project application, Butler said. The committee would still need to return to the board for fund reservation and final approval.

Board member David McGettigan, meanwhile, said that he believes the memorial now has the proper momentum. The key, everyone agreed, was to ensure that momentum stays beyond any initial burst of pledges.

"We understand, of course, that once construction begins, we can't stop fundraising," Geller said. "It's an ongoing thing. But at last, God willing, we can get construction done."

For his part, Guardian recalled how he was "totally against" the initial plans for the New Jersey Korean War Memorial at Park Place and the Boardwalk, thinking at the time that city fathers had set aside McDonnell Park for war memorials.

"It was a more appropriate, solemn, bucolic location," he recalled thinking. "But I was very shocked to see that it has become hallowed ground. (Tourist) behavior does not continue in there. If you're drinking and partying, you don't bring it into the memorial."

He believed the same thing would happen with the Holocaust Memorial.

"If you'd asked me at first, I would have had it at another location," Guardian said. "But honestly, I thought about it on the Boardwalk, and that's where we really need it. It's the only place you're not going to forget it."

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