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Jackie Schear  

St. Joe QB Jayden Shertel, center, is pursued by Highland’s Rocky Bass Saturday Aug. 31, 2019 at Rutgers Stadium. (JACKIE SCHEAR/PRESS OF ATLANTIC CITY)

Businesses off the boardwalk have seen a good summer season

Some visitors come to South Jersey to spend time on the beaches of Cape May and the boardwalk and beaches of Ocean City, but the downtown business district of each city also benefits from summer influx of tourists.

As the vacation season nears its end, businesses on Asbury Avenue in Ocean City and the Washington Street Mall in Cape May are hoping to squeeze out one last weekend of good weather and crowded shops.

Overall, New Jersey’s tourism industry is trending upward, with visitation to the state surging 7.4% to more than 110 million people last year, which helped increase visitors spending to $44.7 billion, according to the state’s Division of Travel and Tourism.

But even in an industry valued at $44.7 billion, it’s the little things — from sunshine to confident consumers — that can make a difference.

And this year both have been good, according to business owners.

“The economy is improved. Weather was stellar at the shore,” said Christian Leibrandt, owner of Grass Roots Music Store in Ocean City. “We have doubled the revenues of last year, not including the Internet. Internet sales, year round, keeps us going.”

Jon Talese, co-owner and manager of Jon & Patty’s Coffee Bar & Bistro on Asbury Avenue, said this summer met his expectations.

Seventy-five percent of the Jon & Patty customers specifically come to the restaurant to eat there while the other 25% are on the avenue anyway and stop in, Talese said.

Talese could have established his business 11 years ago on the Boardwalk, similar to Oves Restaurant and Browns Restaurant, but he decided against it.

“We wanted to be on Main Street. We wanted to be downtown,” said Talese, 57, who added he grew up in and his mother was born in Ocean City.

After experiencing the beach and the boardwalk, most visitors enjoy shopping next, and Asbury Avenue offers 110 boutique shops, said Michelle Gillian, executive director of the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce.

More people coming into Ocean City increases the chances that the downtown businesses will do well, Gillian said.

“You can’t be out in the sun for 12 hours,” Gillian said.

After a day out in the sun sweating and wearing sunscreen, a person may need to take a nice long bath or shower. With 950 different soaps, it is unlikely that people could walk out of Bath Time on the Washington Street Mall in Cape May without finding some type of soap they liked.

Bonnie Mullock, the Bath Time owner for the past 25 years, believes this summer featured the most people in town in years.

“It’s just been wonderful, an excellent summer. People have been very happy, pleased to be here, pleased to be away,” said Mullock, who added it has been a really good year, but she will not know for sure until she runs the numbers at year’s end. “We judge it more on the people who come in, the fact that they are happy.”

Atlantic Books, based in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, closed its stores in beach resorts, including Cape May, in 2011 because they were no longer profitable.

The Cape Atlantic Book Company stepped up to fill that void eight years ago in Cape May. Patrick Young, the owner, decided to establish his business on the Washington Street Mall instead of Beach Avenue, which is closer to the ocean, because the mall is the place to shop.

“It has been an excellent summer. My numbers are up,” said Young, who added this summer has been better than last summer. “The weather has been beautiful.”

Similar to Ocean City, Cape May had more beach tags sold this summer than last summer.

As another indicator of the number of tourists that spent this past summer in Cape May County, the county paid the state $1,751,768 in occupancy taxes for the month of June, Gillian said.

“Cape May County, for sure, sent more taxes up to Trenton than anybody else,” Gillian said.

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Yishai Cruz,10, of Atlantic City sits with his puppy, Max, at Texas Avenue Park. It’s the first time at the park for Max and Cruz takes him around the park before trying to get him to play fetch. July 17, 2019 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)

Edward Lea/  

Jenna Kisby, of Absecon the owner and chef of the gluten-free Kizbee’s Kitchen in Egg Harbor City. She said her “Happy Places” are her front porch and her bathroom Friday Aug 30, 2019. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

New Jersey is the Garden State. But in Atlantic City, it’s a food desert

ATLANTIC CITY — Every year, New Jersey produces hundreds of millions of pounds of produce from blueberries and eggplant to spinach and squash. The state is known for it’s agriculture contributions, but for residents of Atlantic City, finding fresh food can be difficult.

In fact, most of Atlantic City, north of Albany Avenue lives in a low-income, low-access area to food often called a “food desert,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas.

Recognizing the need for better and more affordable access to good quality and nutritious food, the state and the city have been actively pursuing a supermarket in the city.

In August, the city announced that a ShopRite would be the likely tenant of the grocery store to be built on land near the Atlantic City Convention Center donated by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority — a key goal in the initial report about revitalizing Atlantic City authored by Jim Johnson, special counsel to the governor.

“It could have a key impact on the health of residents and would make the city more attractive to potential newcomers,” the report reads.

But what does living in a food desert actually mean?

It doesn’t mean that there is no food available, experts said.

New Jersey is the Garden State, but in Atlantic City, it’s a food desert

It’s true that residents in Atlantic City have access to a number of venues to purchase groceries: the city is dotted with corner stores and markets throughout, with the Cedar Food Market stores the most visible, and a Save-A-Lot on Atlantic and Kentucky avenues offers residents a slightly larger option.

The term food desert applies specifically to the lack of larger grocers. The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store. Those types of stores are currently only available outside the city’s 48 blocks: the Acmes in Ventnor Heights or Brigantine or the Shoprites in Absecon or Egg Harbor Township, which also has a Walmart Supercenter.

“If you need something specific in food, you have to travel quite a distance,” said Sylvester Showell, president of the Westside Neighborhood Protective Association.

Once a month, Showell takes a bus to Philadelphia’s famous Reading Terminal. He returns with a suitcase stocked with fresh meat, enough to last until his next trip.

Showell makes the trek because of the low prices and high quality of the products, something he says he has looked for but cannot find in his hometown.

He relies on his own garden and a community garden he manages in his ward for fruit and vegetables and walks to the corner Cedar Mart for other items.

In addition to availability, economic factors also contribute to food access.

Each month, about 1,500 residents of Atlantic City visit soup kitchens partnered with the Community Food Bank of New Jersey — Southern Branch and 3,000 households participate in the organization’s food pantries scattered throughout the city.

Kimberly Arroyo, director of agency relations for the Southern Branch, said the food bank is likely only meeting 30% of the need in the city of about 38,000.

“Not even close to where we want to be,” she said.

Arroyo said they could reach more residents with more partners and more awareness, but there is also combating negative perceptions.

“In my experience, problems with access are families not wanting to go for help. Unfortunately, there’s a stigma with receiving help, and a lot of families they don’t want to have to experience that,” she said.

Valarie Mack, 55, who lives in the city’s 3rd Ward, said she often used the food pantries in the city and was unhappy with how she was treated.

“They weren’t paying attention, it was just, ‘We’re there for those hours, sign in, sign out,’” she said.

But recently, Mack has had exposure to healthier options after joining a summer program at AtlantiCare’s William Gormley Healthplex. The idea of going for help, she said, made her very anxious, and she had to overcome years of distrust.

“You’re so used to falling through the cracks, something good gave me so much anxiety until I realized it’s for real,” Mack said.

Through the summer program, she has learned about foods she used to never eat.

“Like the eggplant, I used to pass that up so much,” Mack said. “We’re substituting the ground beef for the turkey, they didn’t even know, turkey hot dogs.”

While living in a food desert can make accessing food more difficult, it can also impact physical and emotional health.

PBS Newshour, in a report that aired in 2011 discussing the socioeconomic impacts of food deserts, cited U.S. Department of Agriculture data showing “counties with the highest percentage of households living in food deserts (10% or more) had rates of adult obesity in 2008 that were a full nine percentage points higher than counties with the lowest percentage of households in food deserts (1% or fewer households).”

As pointed out in the Johnson report, Atlantic City has some of the worst public health outcomes in the state.

Obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes were immediate public health concerns cited in the Johnson report and health officials earlier this year also tied food access to healthy pregnancies as Atlantic City faces the state’s highest rate of black infant mortality.

Kate Cairns, assistant professor of childhood studies at Rutgers-Camden, said food access also has emotional benefits.

“If we think for many of us food is deeply important to our sense of self, how we connect to our history, our cultural identity with families and friends, so if food is a constant struggle, if it is a strain to simply meet our basic needs then think about the larger toll that has on our relationships and our identities,” she said.