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Ocean City using trained raptors to deter hostile seagulls from Boardwalk

OCEAN CITY — The seagulls in Ocean City have ruffled some feathers.

Officials announced Friday the city will begin using trained raptors to scare away hostile, hungry seagulls known to swipe food from people on the Boardwalk.

The city hired East Coast Falcons, a professional bird training company, to deploy hawks, falcons and owls over the Boardwalk every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. to frighten off the large population of gulls that have laid claim to the popular tourist attraction, according to a news release.

Gulls in Ocean City have become more aggressive over the years in their search for fries and other treats. Last month, Mayor Jay Gillian warned residents not to feed the birds and said businesses should provide covers for food.

The city said the gulls will feel unsafe with raptors flying overhead and will “know instinctively to leave.”

The Humane Society of Ocean City approved the gull abatement program, which the city called a “humane, effective solution for removing nuisance birds.” It will continue through August and possibly return next summer.

“The sight of falcons, hawks and owls over the Boardwalk will be unique, and I hope you’ll join me in wishing this program success,” the mayor wrote in a letter to residents.

According to its website, East Coast Falcons can fly its raptors 2,000 to 3,000 feet above an area “to scare, harass and remove pest birds humanely and effectively.”

Ocean City’s relationship with the gulls has long been strained.

In 2016, the city passed an ordinance to fine those who attract the birds by tossing them scraps of food. A year earlier, tensions hit a boiling point when police said a Pennsylvania man killed a gull while defending his 2-year-old child from it with a rolled-up towel.

It’s a fairly common wildlife management practice that relies on “aversive conditioning,” or the use of something unpleasant to stop unwanted behavior, said Eric Stiles, president of NJ Audubon. Even smart scavengers like gulls will react to falcons, hawks and owls, he said.

He says trained raptors are used at airports to scare away birds from planes. In downtown Trenton, he said, the city uses falcon noises to stop pigeons from landing on buildings.

“Its like using border collies to get Canada geese off lawns,” Stiles said. “What I’d say is, bring a pair of binoculars and watch.”


Recreation
Local music scene vital to Atlantic City's rebirth

Darryl Williams, 18 trumpet, left and Michael Seaman, 22 trombone, right for the Chicken Bone Beach IDEA Jazz Ensemble perform during 20th Annual Jazz on the beach at Kennedy Plaza on the Boardwalk Thursday June 27, 2019. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY — A free concert series returned to Gardner’s Basin this year after a three-year hiatus, and so did locals, beach chairs in hand, to sit in the grass and enjoy an entertainment staple they thought they’d lost forever.

“People were heartbroken,” said Judah Dorrington, a city resident and one of the scheduled performers.

Dorrington and other residents attended a news conference in late May announcing the rhythm-and-blues-themed concert series would return with renewed funding from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

“We’re bringing back something that has to do with our culture,” she said in May. “Everybody’s invited, but this is our culture.”

While Atlantic City’s nine casinos draw national acts, some community members say a heightened attention to supporting the local entertainment scene could enhance quality of life and contribute to the city’s economic revival.

The Urban Land Institute recommended this approach in its 2014 advisory report to both boost the tourism industry and attract permanent residents.

“Tourists are increasingly searching out ‘offbeat’ or hidden features of places to add to their store of experiences,” the report states. “This change means that the indigenous offerings of the Atlantic City community can be a significant contributor to the economic growth of the tourist industry.”

Uban Land Institute report

The state’s 2018 transition report on Atlantic City, co-authored by Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy, says cultural institutions such as the city’s jazz concerts, 48 Blocks festival and Arts Commission help create a sense of “place.”

“This civic energy can bring more hope to the project of revitalizing the city, because they enable community members to feel pride in their own work as well as the efforts of their neighbors,” the report states.

In addition to bringing back the Gardner’s Basin concerts, the CRDA also spent $1 million for free jazz concerts at Kennedy Plaza on the Boardwalk this summer.

“Offering free entertainment lets residents know that their city is something they can be proud of,” said Matt Doherty, executive director of the CRDA. “It was fashioned to inject a happy impact on the people, and we believe it is succeeding.”

But some say the city could do more, including adding more venues and better utilizing the ones it already has.

“There’s been a gap too long for the entertainment scene,” Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. said. “That’s why you see so many people coming out to the summer concert series in Gardner’s Basin, because it’s actually a part of the culture.”

Gilliam said there should be more jazz clubs and small venues such as Club Harlem, which once gave vibrancy to Kentucky Avenue.

“I feel like now we forget that there were small clubs with, like, real musicians,” said local musician Sherode Dandridge-Jamison, 23, of Atlantic City.

Dandridge-Jamison plays guitar, piano and sings.

Instead of going to places such as Philadelphia and New York, one of his aspirations is to sell out Dante Hall Theater in the city’s Ducktown neighborhood.

“All of the talented individuals gravitate to these oversaturated hot spots, and then they leave a void, a vacancy of culture and art and youthful exuberance,” Dandridge-Jamison said.

Asbury Park Councilwoman Eileen Chapman credits the culture in her town with bringing that Monmouth County city back to life.

“I don’t know what would have happened if people weren’t still coming here for music even during the darker days,” she said. “Music was still a part of keeping people engaged even during those darkest hours.”

According to a 2017 report by the Asbury Park Press detailing how music energized the city, the more than 1 million people who visited Asbury Park contributed to the local economy.

The city collected nearly $4.5 million in parking fees that year, up from $1.9 million in 2013, and the city generated $2.1 million in beach revenue, a 15% increase from 2015.

“Music Saved Asbury Park,” according to the slogan printed on a popular T-shirt sold in the city.

Chapman attributed the city’s ability to embrace its entertainment scene in part to Bruce Springsteen, who continues to make appearances at venues such as the Stone Pony.

“Had we not had that history and that legacy, we may have ended up being a forgotten town,” Chapman said.

But while Atlantic City doesn’t have The Boss, those in the music scene say there isn’t a shortage of talent.

“I keep hearing there’s no hip young bands,” said Steve Weiss, co-founder of Atlantic City-based NorStep Productions. “Open your ears.”

Weiss said he booked three talented bands from the city to play a show at Bourre on New York Avenue at the end of July.

“I could probably throw a rock and hit another three that would be great young bands from Atlantic City,” he said.

Weiss started his business supporting local bands five years ago, when he said the music scene in the city was “on life support.” He worked with Le Grand Fromage and the BoneYard, two local venues that have since closed. Still, he continued to work to promote local talent.

“I live in my city. I want to work on my city. I want to make my city better, so why not use up the people from the city?” he said. “Let’s get local kids on the stage, and any stage we can get them on.”

He said it can be tricky for bars and local businesses to support original music and turn a profit because shows and the revenue they draw can be unpredictable.

But Weiss said things are changing.

He credited new businesses such as Bourre for embracing local acts.

Gilliam said the city has its own plan to generate more venues by re-evaluating the properties the city owns, whether commercial or residential, and seeking new uses for them.

He said once a property is selected, the city will put it up for auction or file a request for proposals to make sure its vision matches with that of an investor.

Those plans have not materialized yet, but if these new venues do come to pass, Weiss said, he’ll be involved one way or another.

“I think it’s important, because people need outlets. There’s really no better outlet than music,” Weiss said. “It gives people a place to go to be themselves. It’s fun as hell.”

People are talking about how to reinvent Atlantic City. Join the conversation here.


Local
Firm to present plan for Middle Township medical marijuana facility

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — A vacant seafood processing plant on Indian Trail Road could see new life as a medical marijuana facility under a proposal from a Massachusetts-based company.

Representatives of INSA, a cannabis company that grows, processes and sells its own product, will present plans to the township committee at its next meeting, 6 p.m. Monday at Township Hall, 33 Mechanic St.

As part of the licensing process in New Jersey, the company wants a show of support from township officials.

So far, they seem receptive to the idea. In a statement announcing Monday’s presentation, Mayor Tim Donohue cited the potential economic benefits.

“We know folks will have many questions and concerns regarding this innovative proposal for our town,” Donohue said. “As a governing body, we share these concerns. So far, we have been impressed with INSA, their principal owners and the very public-conscious way they do business. The potential benefits, in job growth and economic activity, are certainly worth exploring.”

Committeeman Michael Clark, Business Administrator Kim Krauss and local police officials traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, for a firsthand look at the company’s production and retail facilities there.

“It was a worthwhile trip,” Clark said. “The local officials described a great working relationship with INSA. Law enforcement has had no problems related to INSA’s operations. The company’s facilities were very secure and well managed.”

According to Donohue, police Chief Christopher Leusner contacted the police chief in Springfield to ask about the company’s relationship with law enforcement there.

“It’s not my job to sell these guys,” said Donohue, but he said the company has a solid reputation. He said a real estate agent contacted the township about the potential use for the vacant La Monica Brands plant, which has been closed for several years.

“We’ve been trying to target these blighted sites in the township,” Donohue said. “We’ve certainly had our eye on this one.”

Mark Zatyrka, CEO and co-owner of INSA, said the company began in Massachusetts and has a facility in central Pennsylvania, near Scranton. If the company receives a license for the Middle Township facility, it would be its first in the state.

The proposal calls for a 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot cultivation and processing facility at the site, as well as a dispensary for those with New Jersey medical marijuana cards.

Township officials stressed the high security planned for the site, along with the potential for jobs, saying pay will range from $14 to $25 an hour, or $50,000 to $150,000 for salaried positions.

Donohue said the decision to support a medical marijuana facility is easier for him than it would be if it were for recreational marijuana, which seemed set for approval in New Jersey earlier this year. A plan to approve recreational marijuana fell short of votes, despite the backing of Gov. Phil Murphy. Supporters now expect a referendum on allowing adult use in 2020.

“That’s not anything that we’re looking at, at this time,” Zatyrka said of recreational marijuana.

In the meantime, legislators approved a new medical marijuana bill in June, allowing 28 new facilities, easing the process for obtaining medical recommendations and increasing the maximum amount that can be purchased each month.

The closest dispensary to Middle Township is the Compassionate Care Foundation in Egg Harbor Township. That’s a round-trip drive from Cape May Court House of a little more than an hour.

There is also a proposal under consideration for a medical marijuana facility in Dennis Township. On July 9, Emmett Vandegrift of Evergreen Curative and his partners spoke to Dennis Township Committee about supporting a facility there. The committee did not take any action.

Vandegrift had approached Middle Township about the proposal last year and also spoke to the Lower Township Council. He told Dennis Township officials that Middle Township was not interested in hosting a presentation.

Vandegrift, of Dennisville, did not respond to a request for comment.

New Jersey approved medical marijuana in 2010. Since its implementation, six facilities have begun growing and distributing marijuana throughout the state, with six more going through the approval process.

About 51,000 people have medical marijuana cards in New Jersey, according to state reports.


Education
How have school districts impacted by funding reforms responded to cuts?

After school aid reforms signed into law last year moved millions of dollars from some districts to others that were underfunded, school districts impacted had a decision to make: Make major cuts and continue with the status quo, or look for efficiencies.

Now, that decision may be made for them under state Sen. President Steve Sweeney’s plan to merge all sending and receiving districts that are not currently K-12, a bill that was introduced in the Senate in May.

Some schools saw the funding reforms as a call to action, but not all local districts are on board with the idea of merging with larger districts to save money, even if they may be required.

“We’re doing everything we can to explore a partnership with other districts,” Weymouth school board President Edward Zebedies Jr. said. “We’re looking after the best interests educationally of our community. We have to. It’s a matter of survival.”

Weymouth Township school officials have been fighting the reduction in state aid in Trenton while also exploring their options with neighboring districts. There are fewer than 200 students who attend the K-8 school building there, and the district already sends its high school students to Buena Regional.

“At the moment, merger is a high priority. We’re investigating our options. We’re leaning more toward shared services,” Zebedies said.

In April, when Sweeney visited Stockton University for a discussion on his Path to Progress plan, Weymouth school board member Henry Goldsmith asked the senator about funding for consolidation studies. Sweeney said money would be made available.

The final 2020 state budget mirrored closely the budget approved by legislators but reduced the total funding for the school district consolidation study grant from $48 million to $10 million.

“Finding ways to reduce property taxes is the legislature’s No. 1 goal, and the promotion of school consolidation is a key component of the Path to Progress. While $10 million will get us started in helping school districts conduct studies on the best ways to facilitate the mergers, more would have been better. Whether it’s through shared services, transitional aid, or money to support local parks, we are disappointed this administration fails to recognize the need to keep property taxes in check,” Sweeney said about the cuts.

Zebedies said the district hasn’t heard anything more about the consolidation study grants.

As part of Sweeney’s proposed bill, within the first three months, districts would develop their own consolidation plans. Any districts without a plan would have a plan developed for them by the executive county superintendent and all costs of the studies would be borne by the State. Districts would have two years to consolidate if approved by the commissioner.

Statewide, more than 270 districts would be eliminated under Sweeney’s plan. In South Jersey, almost 80% of the school districts would be affected. State Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said he believes that is a decision that should be made on the local level, not by the state.

“While we should always look for ways to save working families money, we have to remember the devil is in the details. And with the state’s history of creating winners and losers as recently as the funding formula in this year’s budget, we need to guarantee no one’s taxes go up or the quality of education goes down in one community for the benefit of another community as a result of state managed consolidation,” Brown said.

Upper Township, which operates a large K-8 district and sends its high school students to Ocean City, doesn’t see merging into a K-12 district as an option.

“With three functioning buildings, 300 staff members and 1,400 students, there are no viable reasons, nor associated savings, for us to consider any proposed consolidation arrangements for our district,” Superintendent Vincent Palmieri said. “Hopefully, if that particular plan continues to gain support, elected officials will find the time to talk with school administrators, face to face, so that they can receive accurate, meaningful information that directly contradicts their current understanding of consolidation; prior to any official adoption or resolution.”

Upper Township school board President Michele Barbieri added that the district already does a number of shared services.

“It is disappointing that the budget amount for studies was reduced as a number of districts who would consider consolidation but lost significant funding due to S2 may have entered into those studies if grant funding available. Now they are forced to balance budgets on the heels of S2 and the reallocation of aid,” Barbieri said.

John Thomas, acting superintendent for Cape May City, said his district is also not considering consolidation at this time. The district operates an elementary school building in the city and sends its older students to the Lower Cape May Regional School District.

“We are currently sharing several services locally with the City of Cape May, Lower Cape May Regional, and the County Special Services/Tech schools. We are also part of a handful of local and statewide co-ops and consortiums that exist solely to increase the buying power of smaller districts like ours for goods and services,” Thomas said. “We are always looking to find shared services with other public agencies, as long as they are cost effective, yet still provide the highest quality of service to our students, staff, and community.”