Cape May County is more dependent on tourism than any other county in New Jersey, as its year-round population shrinks and seasonal population swells.
While the county lost about 6,000 full-time residents since 2000 and has an estimated 96,300 people living there year-round now, the number of people who travel and live there in the summer has climbed to more 800,000 on an average summer weekend, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the county’s planning department.
“As more full-time folks go, and the economy has been not so good, the tourism industry is basically taking over,” said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College. “It really has left a much more seasonal economy.”
Deanna Ebner, co-owner of Quahog’s Seafood Shack in Stone Harbor, said she has noticed the high times of the year are increasingly high, maybe at times to the detriment of other times.
“Certainly it’s more concentrated, I feel,” said the Cape May Point resident who grew up in Avalon. “It’s definitely more geared to when the kids get out of school.”
Her business is strictly seasonal. She said it would take a dramatic population shift to change that.
“Because we work with fresh product,” she said. “If we don’t have people walking in the door, we’re throwing the food out.”
“If more people moved in here year-round, great,” she added. “If they don’t, we’re not going anywhere.”
County leaders are always trying to grow their $5.2 billion tourism economy, but they also seek ways to find more stable, long-term employment opportunities.
About 65 percent of Cape May County’s total employment, or about 33,500 jobs, is either directly or indirectly related to tourism, a larger percentage than any other county in the state. Only Atlantic County comes close at 53 percent, followed by Ocean County at less than 19 percent, according to the state Division of Travel and Tourism.
That means that while unemployment is practically zero in the summer, the unemployment rate jumps to as high as 14 percent in the winter.
Meanwhile, the number of visitors to the county is apparently growing at a steady rate.
Using estimates that include the numbers of hotel and motel rooms, campsites, rental and vacation homes and even marina slips, along with surveys on daytrippers, the county planning department estimates that 812,015 people were in the county at any time on an average weekend in July and August last year.
“These are just estimates,” said Martin Teller, the county’s principal planner. “They’re not cold, hard numbers.”
Finding more exact numbers can be either very expensive or impossible, especially if private lodging companies do not want to provide their records, as Perniciaro said is often the case.
Teller said the county’s numbers are probably an underestimate, because the survey they base their day trip numbers on is outdated. There were 190,000 daytrippers in the county on a summer weekend last year, according to the county’s estimates.
More than half of the seasonal population boom is from second-home owners and renters, who combine with year-round residents to account for nearly 500,000 people. Another approximately 57,000 people stay in campsites in the county, while 47,000 stay in hotel and motel rooms.
Collectively, these totals have climbed by 22 percent since 2000, while the year-round population has dropped by about 8 percent. Perniciaro said some population models project those trends to continue for the next 20 years.
“This is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “As long as most of the employment is seasonal, you’re not going to get full-time residents.”
He said some models have shown the county’s year-round population declining as low as 88,000, while others show it rising back up to its peak of about 105,000. In any case, Perniciaro said, it is unlikely it will change much in the next few decades.
This is an issue he said he has seen in other resort regions and is not easy to change.
“It’s very difficult to turn around the seasonal economy, especially if the seasonal economy is successful,” he said.
One other trend that may be driving the rise of visitors in July and August is the relative weakening of the season before those months. The weeks between Memorial Day and July 4 are not as strong as they once were, businesses and officials say, as families are more wrapped up in school and extracurricular activities.
That leaves the peak of the season for only two months before students return to school.
“We’re definitely seeing a change in the pattern,” county Tourism Director Diane Wieland said. “A lot of it has to do with the school calendar. ... The high time of the season has gotten shorter.”
For similar reasons, weekdays in the county are not as strong for business as they once were either, which officials said is due to fewer families having time to take off work and other activities for days or weeks at a time.
To counteract that, leaders are constantly coming up with ways to get primarily second-home owners back into their communities at other times of the year. They said that is their best bet for bringing in off-season business.
“That really helps us transfer a little bit from just a seasonal community based on tourism to more of a year-round community,” said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce. “Although our year-round population has been declining, having a very healthy second-home owner market is very helpful to the overall Cape May County economy.”
Christine Ternosky, who owns Chrissie’s Boutique in Sea Isle City, said those second-home owners are crucial to extending her season, and she feels the number of off-season events the city organizes are successful at bringing them back.
As far as the increasingly accentuated tourist economy goes, she said she would be focusing on the positive of bigger crowds in the summer.
“The more the merrier,” the business owner of 29 years said.
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