The Vance's Bar property on Lafayette Street will be purchased by Cape May.

CAPE MAY - The city has finally acquired the key property to create a new 38-acre park off Lafayette Street, a move that will allow the demolition of an eyesore at the entrance to town.

The city has been trying to purchase the vacant Vance's Bar property on Lafayette for more than a decade, at first to construct a new city hall and now to site a new park, but one of the goals all along was to clean up the main road leading into town that is the first impression tourists get on their arrival.

City Solicitor Tony Monzo said the deal was finalized June 25 to buy the 1.7-acre property from a Philadelphia bank for $1,956,000. Mayor Ed Mahaney said demolition of Vance's could take place in a matter of weeks.

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"We'll prepare specs over the next couple weeks to go out to bid for demolition. Demolition will include Vance's Bar itself and some or all of the paved parking lot there," Mahaney said.

A later step will be public meetings on what kind of park to create, but Mahaney said before that can happen, there will have to be an environmental study of the property.

Vance's is next to where the city ran a coal gasification plant from the 1880s to 1937, and pollutants have been removed from the soil at nearby properties. The plant converted coal to what was called "town gas" to power lights and heat homes, but it left behind pollutants, mainly coal tar and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs.

After a series of utility company mergers, the coal gasification site came under the ownership of the Morristown-based Jersey Central Power & Light. The utility cleaned up the site, which the city is using for a dog park, and would be responsible if any work is needed nearby at Vance's.

"JCP&L will do additional study under the bar and parking lot to make certain there is no contamination," Mahaney said.

Much of the purchase will be covered by grants from the state Department of Environmental Protection's Green Acres and Blue Acres programs. The city has been awarded $1,567,000 for the park project from the two programs, though Vance's is not the only land acquisition. The city is still negotiating to purchase two residential properties on St. John Street, one of which has been cleaned up by JCP&L.

The city expects the park project to come in at around $3.4 million, though this would not include amenities to be added later. The state money requires a 50 percent local match. Monzo said the city's own open-space fund would be tapped to help pay the rest of the costs. The city created the fund in 2001 with an added levy on property tax bills. This is the first time it has been used. Mahaney said merely having the fund has boosted state funding from the normal 25 percent of a project to the 50 percent level.

Much of the 38 acres for the park is wetlands along Cape Island Creek that will be turned into nature trails. Vance's Bar is a key property because it is high ground and will provide parking. The acquisition also ends any chance of developing the property and thus jeopardizing the park project.

The property had been slated for a 24-unit condominium project, called The Riviera at Cape May, before a crashing housing market. Unanswered questions about pollution at the site doomed the enterprise. The development company went bankrupt, and the property fell into the hands of the First Republic Bank of Philadelphia.

The park would include lands at the Cape May Elementary School, the Dellas Little League baseball field and a vacant tract that was the site of a 19th century golf course, tennis courts, archery and pigeon shooting attractions on the north side of town.

After the state DEP signs off on the site's cleanup, Mahaney said, public input would be sought on what amenities to include. A preliminary plan drafted in 2010 included three basketball courts, bocce, shuffleboard, areas to walk, sit and picnic, a rain garden, nature trails, playground, baseball and softball fields, a multipurpose field for soccer and other sports, bathrooms, parking, a concession stand and the dog park. Mahaney said one idea was to construct a knoll facing Dellas field, similar to the famous Little League field at Williamsport, Pa., from which to watch games. The knoll also would serve as a storage area.

"It's up to the public to decide what they want to do," Mahaney said.

The city has wanted the Vance's Bar property for years. It was appraised at just more than $1 million in 2004, and the city made a $1.1 million offer that was turned down. City Council then adopted an ordinance allowing the use of eminent domain to take the property. At that time, it was owned by Henry Wise Sr. and his wife, Florence, who bought the property decades ago from Joe Vance and used it to run a liquor store and bar. Using eminent domain was controversial, and council ended up repealing the ordinance.

The Wise family sold to the condominium developer for $2.69 million. Mahaney said several new appraisals were done to determine the $1.9 million purchase price.

In 2004, the city wanted the property to build a new city hall, police station and library, but those plans were scrapped.

Mahaney cautioned that the park is still years away. He is hoping the site gets a clean bill of health by 2015. Once that happens, JCP&L intends to donate land it still owns in the area to the city, he said.

Contact Richard Degener:


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