SEA ISLE CITY — The loss of Gillian’s Funland leaves a physical, financial and social void in this town.
And although the owners of area businesses anticipate a drop in revenue this year related to the closing of the city’s only amusement park, they are sympathetic to the man who tried but ultimately failed to fill the resort’s gaping need for family-based entertainment.
As summer 2014 unofficially starts this weekend, the tract at 42nd Place and the bay will be devoid of attractions such as the carousel, the train and the boat ride for the first time since 2008. The Tilt-A-Whirl, the Wacky Worm and the Galleon will no longer light up the night, and the screams of delighted park-goers will not be heard.
Butch Romano, for one, will miss all of that.
For 52 years, Romano has been serving live lobsters, fresh catches and prepared dinners at Marie’s Seafood in the 4300 block of Park Road. From 2009 to 2013, the years Funland operated within easy walking distance of his family-owned takeout, Romano said he noticed a definite uptick in traffic.
“We picked up a lot of business from the rides,” Romano said Thursday morning, holding court at a table set up on the sidewalk in front of his store where he waved to the occupants of every horn-beeping vehicle that drove by. “We had 50, 60 more people a night. We had to keep the store open until 10 at night because we’d get a second wave after they were done on the rides. We’re going to lose a lot of business this year.”
“Mike’s Seafood is surely going to miss Funland,” said Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood and Dock Restaurant in the 4200 block of Park Road. From his vantage point behind the counter at his seafood takeout store, Monichetti could look out a north-facing window and see the empty skyline – basically all that’s left of Funland -- beneath the span of the bridge into town. “From day one, we had heavier foot traffic. Businesses in the area benefitted tremendously from Funland.”
Why Funland failed
The reverse cannot be said. After five years of trying to build the business, with the last year of operation occurring in the wake of devastation from Sandy, owner Jay Gillian said he felt he had no option but to close the park. Three feet of water from the October 2012 hurricane had swamped the area and damaged many of the park’s attractions, forcing Gillian to spend what he estimated as another half-million dollars to make the park operational for a delayed, July 2013 opening.
The additional expense, on top of an initial investment of roughly $2.5 million to open the park and expand it through the years from purely kiddie rides to include some attractions for older visitors, proved too great to absorb, Gillian said. City Solicitor Paul Baldini and Business Administrator George Savastano both agreed that Sandy was the park’s ultimate undoing.
“I probably should have left earlier,” Gillian said. “If it had been about the bottom line, I would have left after the first or second year, the third year at the latest. But it was more about family and community than business. That’s why I kept trying.”
The agreement he and the city of Sea Isle struck contained provisions for his departure after the first and second years that would have allowed him to walk away without debt to the city. The public-private partnership was a first for the city, said Baldini, and was recognized as a risky venture as the concept was untested. Gillian, whom Baldini said bore most of the risk as he was responsible for equipping the park, leased the city-owned bayside property and, in accordance with the contract, was to pay 10 percent of the park’s gross receipts to the city.
Gillian made payments in full in 2009 and 2011. He made a partial payment on what he owed for 2010 in 2011. Sea Isle City received no payments for its percentage of gross receipts from the park in 2012 and 2013, Savastano confirmed, nor were the property taxes on the lot paid for those two years, said Tax Collector Paula Doll. While delinquency notices were sent to Gillian, Doll said she is statutorily prohibited from putting city-owned property into tax sale.
Gillian’s lease with the city did not include the local purpose taxes, and the school and county taxes were split between the city and him, Baldini said. At the time he terminated the contract with the city in April 2014, Gillian agreed to pay unpaid taxes and unpaid gross receipts, roughly in an amount totaling $60,000, over a five-year period at 3 percent interest. He paid in full outstanding utility bills in the amount of $5,448.
The future of Funland’s lot
While there was some grumbling earlier this month at a Chamber of Commerce meeting as to the perceived “sweetheart deal” Gillian was offered, sentiment is in Gillian’s favor for making an attempt to deliver something the city desperately wanted.
“In my opinion, the city should forgive him his debt,” said Romano of Marie’s Seafood. “The city was begging him to come in and do something. He’s a great guy. He did everything he said he would and he lost a lot of money.”
Baldini said the contract specified 10 percent of gross receipts, not 10 percent of profits, so even though Gillian made no profit due to the expenditures incurred in establishing the park, he still owes Sea Isle City money. The city was lenient toward Gillian’s tardy payment record due to Funland’s importance to the town, Baldini said.
“We offered it to him because we understood the commitment he made to our town,” Baldini said of the termination agreement. “We as a government, we as a town, were willing to extend ourselves on his exit because of the way he extended himself on his stay. He could have been out of here three years ago and owed us nothing, if he walked out after two years. It was more important to us to eventually worry about the money he owed us than for him to leave town.”
John Fee, president of the Sea Isle City Taxpayers Association, said none of the organization’s members had made comments regarding the repayment deal.
Gillian’s Funland came to exist in answer to the city’s need for family entertainment. A former amusement park, Fun City, which had occupied the block between 32nd and 33rd streets along the beach, sold in the 1990s and was replaced by 10 side-by-side duplexes.
When the current administration came into power, the city was receptive to public desire to bring an amusement park to town. Gillian was the only one who evidenced interest.
At the chamber meeting, Michael DeNunzio expressed concerns over the park’s demise. “It’s going to come up: What happened to Gillian’s?” said DeNunzio, of DeNunzio’s Brick Oven Pizza and Grille. “It’s never been more important than now to let visitors know we care about their families.”
Savastano said the vacant lot would be used this summer for parking and that the city would continue to explore ideas for its future use.
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