WILDWOOD — Local businesses expressed cautious optimism Wednesday about the summer, despite a hurricane, a recession and lingering effects of the housing-market collapse.
Hundreds of people attended the Business at the Beach Expo to meet, mingle and compare notes about the past year’s experiences.
The annual expo at the Wildwoods Convention Center is the largest business-networking event of its kind in Cape May County. More than 100 banks, engineering firms, insurance companies and small businesses set up booths in the convention center.
“People are very optimistic,” said Vicki Clark, president of the expo’s sponsor, the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce.
The county’s tourism economy has made up virtually all of the ground it lost since the recession. Weather permitting, this year should be a good one, Clark said.
Meanwhile, the Cape May County Department of Tourism will present its 2012 summary at 2 p.m. today at the county Administration Building in the Crest Haven Complex.
“Everyone is still holding their breath waiting to exhale,” County Tourism Director Diane Wieland said. “We’re getting some mixed signals. For every person who tells you they have increased bookings, the next person says ‘My phone isn’t ringing’.”
Clark said the key will be to get the message out early that South Jersey, and Cape May County in particular, have recovered from last year’s Hurricane Sandy.
“People see an image of a roller coaster in the ocean and think that’s the entire Jersey Shore,” she said of the Jet Star roller coaster that became swamped after the Casino Pier collapsed in Seaside Heights.
By contrast, boardwalks and promenades from Atlantic City to Cape May saw little to no damage from the storm. And most businesses that saw flooding have long since reopened.
Some tourists likely will seek out new vacation destinations until reconstruction is complete in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Clark said the goal is to keep those visitors from leaving New Jersey altogether.
“We have compassion for our colleagues in Ocean and Mon-mouth counties who are not as summer-ready as we are. But Delaware has a campaign to target our customers just 17 miles over the Delaware Bay,” she said. “People will be looking for alternatives. We want to keep them in New Jersey.”
Business owners were upbeat.
“Everyone seems to be pretty positive,” said Eric Reich, president of Reich Asset Management in Upper Township.
His company offers insurance and investment products. The stock market has been on the march in recent years, but could be due for a correction, he said.
“Historically, it’s down one year for every three years it’s up,” he said. “We haven’t had a correction in five years, so that’s a little scary.”
Chris Kelly, of Dennis Township, said his customers have been a little reserved this year. He owns Keltex Imprinted Apparel Inc., based in Dennis Township, which provides screen-printing, embroidery and thermal transfer on marketing products and clothing.
“I deal with a lot of retail stores. I hear the same thing. People are taking a wait-and-see attitude about how the summer will get started,” he said.
Barbara Tomalino, owner of Paramount Air Service in Dennis Township, said business was good for her last year.
“Should I say it? We had a banner year,” she joked.
Of course, her second-generation banner-plane advertising business has one every year. But she said revenue was up in 2012 and seems promising this year for the company her late father, Andre Tomalino, started in 1945.
Likewise, businesses such as Morey’s Piers in Wildwood expect to have a good year. The amusement park launched a new social-networking children’s app this year that rewards badges and helps riders share how many heart-pounding rides they have braved during the day. The park also will offer a beachside village called Art Box at the Adventure Pier where people can see local artists at work, said Meredith Fiorucci, director of group sales.
Many businesses are expressing interest in borrowing to take advantage of still-low interest rates, said Jane M. Fronczak, vice president at Susquehanna Bank, which has 28 branches in southern New Jersey.
“Banks definitely have the money to lend. But you need to be able to support the loans you take on,” she said.
These loans will infuse the local economy with more capital, which should be welcome, she said.
“We see a lot of construction companies hit hard at the beginning of the recession. Since Hurricane Sandy, their business has turned around as people have tried to raise their homes and businesses,” she said.
PNC Bank, which has six branches in Cape May County, this month introduced a new product called Cash Flow Insight, business banker Kristina Damato said.
“It combines the convenience of QuickBooks with the customer service we already provide,” said Damato, of Cape May. “It makes you a more informed business owner. It’s very intuitive.”
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