When Ryan Krill was just another seasonal visitor, he said, he never had much of an impulse to leave his family's home in Avalon and head to the mainland for any reason.
"It was kind of like a lack of knowledge," he said recently. "There wasn't a lot of energy about things to do off the island."
That is slowly but steadily changing, at least from Krill's perspective now as one of the co-owners of Cape May Brewing Co. in Lower Township. Attractions such as his are among those helping to make Cape May County an overall tourist destination rather than merely a string of waterfront resorts.
"I just kind of get the sense that there's more public awareness about things to do off the barrier islands," Krill said.
The county's economy is more dependent on tourism than any other in the state, but the peninsula's mainland communities of Woodbine and Upper, Dennis, Middle and Lower townships do not see the hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer that the shore points do.
That hasn't stopped stakeholders in those towns from trying to reap some of the economic benefits that come with wealthy visitors passing through and staying close by. Local politicians often talk about finding ways to entice those tourists to cross the causeways into their communities.
"We're not trying to steal their business. We're not competing," Middle Township Mayor Dan Lockwood said. "We just offer so many things that the barrier islands simply don't."
One thing Cape May County's inland towns have going for them is space. With the shore points all practically built out, developable space on the mainland offers the most opportunity for expansion to accommodate the county's growing number of seasonal visitors.
"They're not going to be doing a lot more building on the water," said county Tourism Director Diane Wieland. "Unless that lost island of Atlantis washes up on our shore, the future of growth is going to occur on the mainland."
At the same time, though, those towns have been promoting their open space and ecotourism opportunities. Fully developed islands can't match the mainland, with its wildlife refuges and world-class bird watching spots.
Some of the mainland's attractions are far from new. The Cape May County Zoo, local golf courses, historic sites such as Cold Spring Village and big-box retail stores have been major draws for years and even decades.
Newer attractions include wineries and breweries, with a total of eight now that have become unique destinations of their own. The increasing awareness and marketing of ecotourism and outdoor recreation opportunities on the mainland is another recent trend.
"The key is getting the word out to explain what we have to offer," said Carol Struett, chairwoman of the Middle Township Economic Development Council.
Some of these places have benefited from the established brands of the resort communities. Cape May Winery and Cape May Brewing Co. are both in Lower Township, not Cape May, just as Avalon and Stone Harbor golf clubs are both in Middle Township.
"The visitors don't think, 'Oh, that's in Middle Township and I'm visiting in Stone Harbor,'" said Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce. "It's all Stone Harbor to them, or it's all Cape May to them."
Tourism officials hope these efforts by mainland communities improve the $5.2 billion in annual direct sales from tourism in Cape May County, rather than just spreading that money more evenly among its 16 municipalities.
One way to do that is by extending the season and bringing in tourists when the beach communities are least active in the winter. No one location could do that on its own, but as more remain open year-round, it may provide enough incentive for people to visit even when it's cold.
Cape May Brewing's Krill said his company's first winter since adding a tap room with picnic tables, food and live music was busy, often attracting people staying in Atlantic City who were looking to sample some local beer while in South Jersey.
"Our goal of that is to give folks a reason to come inland," Krill said of the new tap room and entertainment. "A lot of these people kind of expect when coming to the shore that South Jersey's dead during the off-season. They're kind of surprised to see how lively it is."
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