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Volunteers losing hope as search continues for missing 5-year-old Bridgeton girl

BRIDGETON — A steady drizzle and cool fall temperatures dampened the hopes of almost 35 volunteers who braved the elements and terrain Sunday morning to search the dense woods near Alden Field for signs of a 5-year-old girl who has been missing for more than a month.

For close to two hours, the group searched for any clues that may shed some light about what happened to Dulce Maria Alavez on Sept. 16. Coordinated by a private investigator from Pennsylvania, Sunday’s search effort was at least the second attempt this month to find something that law enforcement may have missed.

Similar to the volunteer search at City Park on Oct. 6, Sunday’s excursion yielded no results.

Carrie Sheehan, a mother of four from Monmouth County who participated in the search earlier this month as well, said she has started to lose hope of finding the girl.

“There’s really no trace, at this point, of her whereabouts or if she was even in these woods or at the park,” she said Sunday. “At this point, we really have nothing to work off of except each other.”

Sheehan she believed there is “definitely foul play involved.”

The private investigator, William Rackley, 36, of Glenolden, Pennsylvania, described himself as “just a concerned citizen” who got involved with the search for Dulce because he was concerned that attention on the girl’s disappearance would begin to fade as more time went by.

“It breaks my heart when people can’t afford proper help, because when the police give up, nobody’s left searching for anything,” Rackley said. “A lot of crimes go unresolved because of a lack of public interest. It burns my blood when that happens.”

A Latino church group from Virginia held a prayer service in the parking lot as the volunteers exited the woods. Holding hands and huddled under umbrellas, the group prayed for Dulce’s safe return.

Dulce disappeared Sept. 16 while playing with her younger brother in the park. The girl’s 19-year-old mother was sitting in her car with an 8-year-old relative when she saw her 3-year-old son crying and pointing to where he last saw Dulce, police said. The girl may have been taken by a man who led her away from the playground where she was playing with her brother, according to police, and into an older model red van.

State Police issued an Amber Alert the next day. She has also been placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list of missing or kidnapped persons.

A $52,000 reward is being offered for information that will lead authorities to Dulce.

Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae has said the investigation, which has included more than 300 law enforcement officers from various agencies, is operating under the presumption Dulce is still alive.

The prosecutor’s office released a sketch of a man reported to be in the park where she was last seen. Webb-McRae on Tuesday said the man depicted in the composite sketch is not a suspect or person of interest.

“He is simply a possible witness we want to speak with at this time,” she said.

The man, reported to be wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans and white baseball hat at the time, was seen with two children under the age of 5. He is Hispanic, about 35, approximately 5-foot-7 with a slender build, according to the prosecutor.

Anyone with information can call Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033 or the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI, or text information to tip411 with the word “Bridgeton.” Pictures or videos can be uploaded to fbi.gov/alavez.

GALLERY: Voulnteers search for missing Bridgeton girl

GALLERY: Voulnteers search for missing Bridgeton girl

Hamilton Township and Atlantic City Race Course owner agree to create redevelopment plan

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — The future of the 73-year-old Atlantic City Race Course remains unknown 18 years after Greenwood Racing Inc. purchased the track for $15 million.

However, the first step was taken recently to have something done with the 250-acre parcel of property for the first time since it closed four years ago.

Earlier this month, the Township Committee approved a memorandum of understanding with Greenwood ACRA, so that both entities can work together to create a redevelopment plan for the race course, Township Administrator Michael S. Jacobs said.

About $20,000 will be put into escrow by Greenwood to pay for the redevelopment plan, Jacobs said.

A look back at Atlantic City Race Course

The township’s planning consultant and redevelopment attorney will work on the plan. They will be paid by the township, but the money from the escrow account will repay the township for their hours spent creating the plan, he said.

The agreement calls for 180 days to work on the project, but both sides can agree to extend the time, Jacobs said.

State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, was happy to hear the township and the property owner were joining together for the betterment of the race course.

“All along, I’ve felt this site presented a great opportunity for new growth in our county, which is why I appreciate the township and Greenwood ARC working together to find the best way to revitalize the race track and further diversify our economy while creating new jobs for our middle class families,” Brown said.

During the Oct. 7 township meeting, an attorney from the law firm, Maley Givens of Collingswood, who will work on the development plan, was in attendance, Jacobs said. The lawyer said the plan will explore having gaming at the site along with a hotel, according to Jacobs.

Commiteeman John Kurtz was pleased to hear that the possibility of a hotel is a use of the property that will be researched.

“We are a 115-square-mile township with no lodging,” said Kurtz, who added an attorney from the law firm will return at a future meeting.

Daniel Snodgrass, president of the Mays Landing Merchants Association, was also happy to hear that one of the things that will be explored with the property is putting a hotel on it.

“I am supportive of anything the township is doing to bring in new businesses,” Snodgrass said.

This is not the first time that the Township Committee has heard that someone wants to do something with the race course during the last almost-20-year period.

In 2004, the Township Committee decided against rezoning the race course to allow building of a town-center complex.

In April 2005, a Cabela’s representative — a $1.6 billion outdoor sportsmen’s retailer — met with local officials concerning the possible purchase of 240 acres of racetrack property, but by November, they said they were not coming.

In 2014, the open-air Mercato Market opened and had to suspend operations after only one month. A lack of vendor support was blamed.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said the idea of trying to put some type of development plan in place is important for the race course.

“I’m glad to see they are moving forward with a plan to redevelop the project,” said Mazzeo, who added this could lead to long-term tax revenue for the township.

Besides the Race Course, other sections in need of redevelopment within the township are: 45 Mill St., also known as Old Harding Highway Redevelopment Area; the Old American Legion Building; and the former Wheaton Factory.

Prior to the Race Course, the last area designated in need of redevelopment by the Township Committee was the Wheaton Cotton Mill property on the Great Egg Harbor River in the middle of Mays Landing in 2007.

Jacobs, who added the former Wheaton Factory redevelopment designation was prior to his start as township administrator nine years ago, said there has been some planning meetings for the Wheaton site, but no physical work.

Hurricane Dorian, Florida airport construction put dent in ACY's numbers

Extreme weather and a construction project at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport have put a crimp in Atlantic City International Airport’s passenger numbers.

Air passenger numbers were down 9.4% in September compared to September 2018, said South Jersey Transportation Authority Executive Director Stephen F. Dougherty at a board meeting last week.

September parking revenue is down 14.2% from last September, to $390,000, Dougherty said. That includes airport parking facilities and the New York Avenue parking garage in Atlantic City.

About 72,000 passengers came through the airport last month, Dougherty said, adding the airport is on track to exceed the 1 million passenger mark for the year.

The authority said 79,732 passengers came through Atlantic City International in Sept. 2018.

SJTA staff said 20 flights were canceled after Hurricane Dorian, which hit Florida on Aug. 24, and the airport’s main airline Spirit Airlines had to drop some daily flights to Fort Lauderdale because of construction at the airport there.

Spirit will return to three flights to Fort Lauderdale in early November, officials said.

The discussion about the airport traffic led some board members to ask if anyone from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has yet approached the airport for information about potentially purchasing it.

Dougherty said no, and that no consultant for the authority has approached the SJTA either.

Board members have asked the same question for a few months, after State Senator Steve Sweeney announced a push to have the authority buy the facility.

In August, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Kevin O’Toole said the agency is evaluating information on buying Atlantic City International Airport and other New Jersey aviation facilities after receiving two consultants’ proposals.

“This has been pending a long time and nothing has been going on,” said former board Chairman Jeffery April.

“We had a contract in the past with the Port Authority hired to manage the airport, and nothing happened.”

The Port Authority runs the major New York City airports of LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy; Newark International Airport; and Stewart International Airport in Orange County, New York. Sweeney has advocated the Port Authority purchase the Atlantic City airport and potentially use it for some flights, maintenance and other support services.

“Evaluation of the proposals are underway and we expect to make an award very shortly,” O’Toole said in an August email statement.

April said the officials pushing to make the takeover happen should encourage the Port Authority to either act or end the suspense.

“It disturbs me the public looks at the South Jersey Transportation Authority like we’re not doing what we can possibly do to increase traffic,” said commissioner James “Sonny” McCullough. “I want the public to know I believe management has operated the airport properly, and we as an authority have done everything we can do to improve and increase traffic.”

April said the SJTA has met with other airlines to try to encourage them to use Atlantic City, but “the problem is half of the circle (around the airport) is underwater,” referring to the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’m tired of the implication that we don’t know what we are doing with the airport, and there are some great minds in the North that could do it so much better,” Aprl said. “And they haven’t.”

GALLERY: National Aviation Research and Technology Park in EHT