WILDWOOD — About 20,000 extra people are expected to fill the city's hotels and motels this weekend as the 133rd annual New Jersey State Firemen's Association convention got underway Friday, turning city streets into displays for engines and ladder trucks.
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The convention has taken place for the past 36 years in Wildwood. About 7,000 firefighters registered as delegates this year, enough to nearly fill the main hall of the Wildwoods Convention Center when they assembled Friday to hear speeches from U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, and Gov. Chris Christie.
About 100 more delegates registered this year than last year, said John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, or GWTIDA. Factoring in family and friends, the event is expected to draw 20,000 people to the island, he said.
The packed city streets and Boardwalk were good news for local business owners and merchants such as Fred Cristiano, general manager of the Oceanic Hotel on Ocean Avenue across from the convention center.
"This is like Christmas for us," Cristiano said.
Cristiano said his hotel is booked and the adjacent bar is packed through the weekend. He also said that many of the fire companies not only prefer to stay at the same hotel, they want the same rooms year after year.
"The fire companies want to be as close to one another as possible when they get together for parties," Cristiano said.
That holds true for firefighters such as Bill Collins, of the Collings Lakes Volunteer Fire Company in Buena Vista Township, who has been attending the convention for the past 21 years.
Collins said 45 people from his company are in Wildwood this year. Between family and friends, he expected that 200 people were there in support of the fire company.
For Collins, the parade this afternoon is the most important event of the weekend, especially since his company is the defending champion in two categories, including the rescue category. An awards ceremony will follow the parade this evening.
"All of Atlantic County tends to do well here," Collins said.
Wildwood is not the only part of Cape May County that benefits from the rise in visitors this weekend.
Siciliano said many firefighters stay in other shore resort towns, such as Cape May and Stone Harbor.
Chief Rob Winkler of the Cardiff Volunteer Fire Company in Egg Harbor Township said his crew has developed a different plan for attending the convention over the years.
"We used to come and stay here," Winkler said. "Now, the company comes down and camps (at Holly Shores Campground in Cape May) for the weekend."
The annual event falls between two other major post-Labor Day events in the Wildwoods, last week's Roar to the Shore biker rally in Wildwood - which drew an estimated 80,000 people - and next weekend's Irish Fall Festival in North Wildwood.
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If you go
The New Jersey State Firemen's Association convention culminates today with a parade showcasing 300 pieces of apparatus from 200 companies across four states.
When: 1 p.m.
Where: Parade begins at Crocus Road in Wildwood Crest, continues for 2.5 miles on New Jersey Avenue and ends at Eighth Avenue in North Wildwood
An awards ceremony will be held at the Wildwoods Convention Center at 8 p.m.