OCEAN CITY - There is no shortage of gorgeous homes here, but the property with gray siding and blue shutters on Route 52 may be one of the most beautiful - both inside and out.
Made to resemble the Ocean City Yacht Club's former clubhouse, the new Ocean City Welcome Center along the causeway from Somers Point will open for the first time on Memorial Day, the last piece of the approximately $500 million bridge-replacement project.
With unparalleled views of the Great Egg Harbor Bay, educational signage about the history of the city and plans to feature local artwork indoors, it will not only provide information about events on the island but will also be a tourist destination of its own.
"They did a fantastic job," said Kim Wieland, one of the first Ocean City artists whose paintings will be on display inside this summer. "It's definitely going to add to the community."
The state Department of Transportation built the 4,000-square-foot building for the city because it had to demolish the much smaller welcome center that had been located along the former World War Memorial Bridge.
A few weeks ago, the DOT conveyed the property to the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce, which will now operate it.
"Never did we think we'd have a project like this," said Michele Gillian, executive director of the chamber.
On Monday, chamber staff started moving items into the facility. About six employees will work there at the first-floor information desk and in the second-floor offices, and it should be open every day through the summer from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For this summer, the chamber will keep both the new building and its other office on Ninth Street open.
The new center is accessible by car from the eastbound lanes of the causeway through a driveway that runs behind the building and curves around to a parking lot with about 40 spaces. Pedestrians and bicyclists can also get there on the mixed-use pathway that runs along the entire southern side of the bridge.
Located on Garrets Island, it sits high above the water, providing an unobstructed view of the bay on one side, and overlooking the island on the other side. With restored marshland underneath that is already alive with waterfowl and seabirds, it is fully expected to be a draw for sightseers of all kinds.
"The views are incredible," said Wieland. "You think about things like Night In Venice and the fireworks and all, and it would probably be a great place to watch it."
There was not yet much inside as of Monday, but there was the original control panel for the drawbridge, which will be on display. There are also public restrooms inside that will be open even when the rest of the center is not.
Educational signs surround the exterior decking, complete with historical photographs of city landmarks and the other bridges that lead to the island. One explains that the building's design mirrors the Ocean City Yacht Club's three-story building that stood on Battersea Road between 1912 and 1944, when it was demolished following hurricane damage and the club's bankruptcy.
The third-floor deck on the west side of the welcome center is just for show, and not actually accessible to visitors. The east side of the roof is covered in solar panels that will help offset its energy usage.
"It gives off that nice charm of an old shore house but it's also state-of-the-art," Gillian said.
Along the walkway leading from the parking lot to the building is a plaque dedicated to Francisco Baez, a 29-year-old state road maintenance worker from Buena who was killed on Aug. 10, 1993, when two cars collided and one veered into the construction zone where he was working on the bridge.
"'Frankie will be sadly missed by his mother, father, family, friends and co-workers - Crew 4560 of the New Jersey Department of Transportation," the plaque reads.
Another ramp leads down from the center to the marshland below, where there is one of the causeway's four public fishing piers. Part of that area below the bridge was used as a staging site for the materials and heavy machinery used to build the structure, and it has since been turned back to wetlands.
In fact, that wetlands restoration was what delayed the opening of the facility. The chamber originally wanted to take it over in the fall, but Hurricane Sandy ruined much of what had been done underneath the bridge, pushing back the opening date.
There is still some evidence of the storm's impact there, such as the section of dock washed up on the rock seawall by the fishing pier that now sits abandoned.
On Monday, a sign on the causeway still said the center was closed, so there were few people there besides the chamber employees. One fisherman sat at the end of the pier, and a few bikers and runners went passed.
When fully operational, though, it's certainly possible that there won't be enough space for everyone to visit. Between fishermen, people picking up beach tags and concert tickets, sightseers and even groups of plein air artists, those involved expect it be yet another popular addition to the resort.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Gillian said.
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