WILDWOOD — Cape May County has launched a new countywide economic development initiative with plans to start on Pacific Avenue in Wildwood.

On June 11, the Board of Chosen Freeholders established the Municipal Redevelopment Initiative, beginning with a two-year pilot program focused on Wildwood’s downtown.

County officials point to redevelopment efforts at the Cape May County Airport, including the construction underway on a project planned to become a “tech village” to provide space for technology startups.

According to a statement from the county, several municipalities have sought help with economic development, expressing frustration with a lack of expertise and access to capital.

“People often overlook the multiplier effect,” said Freeholder Will Morey, who has oversight of the county’s economic development efforts. “Fixing up one small building not only provides jobs, products and services related to that building, but frequently creates additional business for existing firms, like restaurants, hotels and retail operations. Most critically, it can bolster businesses that offer year-round jobs.”

The numbers are not yet final, Morey said, but the county expects to spend about $300,000 on administrative costs, with the potential of investing millions of dollars down the road. The county will look to municipalities, including Wildwood, for help with tax incentives and changes to zoning rules.

Freeholders plan to vote on a shared service agreement with Wildwood and local organizations at the next meeting, set for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 25 at the county administration building, 4 Moore Road in the Crest Haven complex.

While the initiative starts in Wildwood, Morey does not expect it to end there. Once the first step gets underway, he expects more towns to seek county help.

“I think we’re taking a crawl, walk, run approach to this,” Morey said.

Efforts underway

The first step will be a program in partnership with local groups aimed at redevelopment of what the county statement referred to as Wildwood’s long-deteriorated Pacific Avenue downtown.

Maybe “deteriorated” isn’t what it used to be.

Outside the open doors of Hooked on Books at 3405 Pacific Ave. on an early June evening, a few people stroll the sidewalks. The ice cream place nearby remains open and the tables are full at the Alumni Grill.

“We survived the Amazon apocalypse,” said Kieran Linnane, the co-owner of the bookstore, which has been open for 29 years. “I remember the lean times, when we were the only open business on the block.”

Surrounded by stacks of books, Linnane said times have been tough for local bookstores and other brick-and-mortar retailers as more and more customers turn to online shopping. But before that, he said, downtowns suffered as shoppers looked to malls and shopping centers. He points to when the former Woolworth’s and other anchor stores on the avenue closed decades ago as the beginning of a long decline.

There are signs that decline has finally been reversed.

It took about 10 years and huge amounts of work to reach this point, according to John Donio, the president of the board for Wildwood’s Downtown Business Improvement District, an organization of business owners in the downtown modeled after a similar group on the Boardwalk.

He pointed to efforts by the city, his organization, private investors and Cape May County.

“All of these entities have made a long-term commitment to turn around the downtown of Wildwood,” he said.

A big step was the renovation of Byrne Plaza at Oak and Pacific avenues, begun in 2017, which included an $875,000 investment from the county open space fund to buy the land and $775,000 from the Byrne Foundation and another $100,000 from Crest Savings Bank to transform the large downtown property.

Linnane’s bookshop is across the street from the plaza, the site of music, outdoor movies and events, including a popular weekly farm market on summer Saturdays that Linnane says draws big crowds. He said more people invested in the neighborhood in hopes of taking advantage of those crowds.

The plaza was an empty lot for years. Before that, it was an empty building, one of the old nightclubs from the days when the area was known as “the block that rocks.”

Donio welcomes further involvement from the county and said there have been extensive discussions with the city and Morey. But for now, he had few specifics to offer on what happens next.

“There’s nothing in writing yet,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what transpires here.”

Revitalization efforts have to be about more than planters and street signs, he said. They need participation from business owners and the community. Without each organization doing its part, Donio said, Byrne Plaza would never have happened. Now, there is a deliberate effort to bring young families back to a neighborhood many used to carefully avoid.

“I’m glad to hear there’s been some improvement. Our view is, there is much more needed to be done to set Pacific Avenue on a positive path,” Morey said.

Cooperation key

He said the county is counting on local participation in the project. Community stakeholders, like BID, the Chamber of Commerce and many others, will be needed for the initiative to succeed, he said.

According to Morey, a lot is still to be decided. The first step will be to create a redevelopment plan. That may eventually include the county purchasing vacant or abandoned buildings, demolishing the buildings and improving the land for sale to developers. Morey believes money spent on that process would be recouped from the sale.

Wildwood’s sprawling downtown is the largest in Cape May County, with numerous blocks of retail properties. There remain some blocks with more vacant storefronts than open businesses. Donio sees that changing with investment and as the town’s numerous restaurants bring more crowds each summer.

In separate interviews, Morey and Donio raised the possibility of reducing the size of the downtown to encourage residential development at its north and south end. A smaller, walkable stretch might prove more attractive to customers and investors.

“By joining technical and financial resources, we will create the opportunities necessary to draw private sector investment into areas neglected by time,” said Freeholder Leonard Desiderio said, as quoted in a county statement on the initiative. “The end result will be vibrant areas of residential and commercial development, where people want to live, work and play.”

“Wildwood was selected as an initial project based on factors including physical condition, the absence of adequate private sector interest to catalyze redevelopment, and redevelopment potential,” reads the statement from the county. “Similarly, considering future participants, the county will examine a municipality’s economic, social, and fiscal stress indexes. State sources are expected to add insight to the information provided by the municipalities for freeholder consideration.”

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