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Sister Jean's turned down meeting with state, city prior to eviction

ATLANTIC CITY — Prior to its eviction from the Tourism District, Sister Jean’s Kitchen, the nonprofit that provides nearly 300 meals a day to those in need, declined to meet with city and state officials on a contingency plan.

On Monday, city officials issued a Notice of Unsafe Structure to Sister Jean’s, which operates out of the 163-year-old Victory First Presbyterian Church at Pennsylvania and Pacific avenues. The notice said the location must be vacated by Thursday.

That remained the case Wednesday night after representatives from Sister Jean’s and the state Department of Community Affairs met with Mayor Frank Gilliam.

The Rev. John Scotland, executive director of Friends of Jean Webster Inc., the nonprofit that runs the kitchen, said officials discussed working out a temporary solution in addition to finding a long-term home, but no one would be fed at Victory on Thursday.

“We have more meetings to do,” Scotland said, adding he was asked not to comment further.

State officials said the Atlantic City Rescue Mission has agreed to provide daily lunches to people once Sister Jean’s closes. The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has agreed to underwrite the cost of the lunches and post staff outside Sister Jean’s to help direct people to the rescue mission for food and assistance.

Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the DCA, said in a statement Tuesday that officials from the state, the city and the CRDA tried to set up a meeting with representatives from Sister Jean’s about a month ago, but the 28-year-old charity rebuffed those efforts.

“Throughout this process, the city has sought to work with Sister Jean’s on alternate means of serving meals, including considering other sites to work from and engaging other service providers of meals,” Ryan said in a follow-up statement Wednesday. “Those efforts have not produced a resolution, and the condition of the building reached the point that it is no longer safe for use and/or occupancy. From the city and the state’s perspective, the most important thing right now is taking care of residents who need assistance.”

Scotland said the group declined to meet with the city and state in January because he believed it would have mirrored a previous meeting they had in June during which the two groups could not reach an agreement.

He said that at the June meeting the charity had hoped to discuss moving to the former St. Monica’s Catholic Church on North Pennsylvania Avenue.

However, he said, city and state officials had a different agenda.

He said they held the meeting to determine how to redistribute the work of Sister Jean’s to other social service groups in the city.

Not wishing to discuss closing at the January meeting, the charity declined to attend.

GALLERY: Sister Jean's Kitchen through the years

“We recognize the good work that Sister Jean’s Kitchen has regularly provided for people in need. But the city also has the obligation to act in the best interest of the people who visit Sister Jean’s for help,” said Ryan.

An online petition was started this week requesting Gilliam allow Sister Jean’s to relocate to St. Monica’s, which the nonprofit purchased with reserve funds more than a year ago.

According to Scotland, city officials have denied Sister Jean’s a certificate of occupancy at the new location.

Gilliam’s office has not responded to repeated requests for comment or clarification.

The online petition has more than 1,500 signatures, and the organizer, Paige Vaccaro, said she has more on paper.

The church that currently houses Sister Jean’s was badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and has continued to deteriorate, said Dale Finch, director of the city’s Licensing and Inspection Department. In February 2017, the charity was issued a Notice of Violation by city inspectors for 15 code infractions. Some of the listed violations were abated, but others were not.

On Jan. 17, city construction officials inspected the building and determined it to be unsafe, noting holes in the ceiling, compromised structural integrity due to exposure to the elements post-Sandy and the poor condition of the sanctuary’s ceiling, walls and balcony.

GALLERY: Sister Jean's Kitchen through the years

Staff Writer Vincent Jackson contributed to this report.

Local craft beer brewers still dealing with shutdown uncertainty

While life has slowly flowed back into the federal government, local beer and spirits producers have had little time to toast its reopening as they continue to deal with regulatory backups and the uncertainty of another shutdown brewing.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, the federal agency that regulates the production of alcoholic beverages, was unable to approve the labels local breweries and distilleries needed to release their new products during the 35-day shutdown.

The agency has since started processing these label applications again, but is contending with a significant backlog.

This has caused some South Jersey brewers to either put new product developments on hold, cancel potential launches or shift their deadlines in an industry they say hinges on engaging customers with new releases.

“It puts all of our planning into a total tailspin, which is a really big problem,” said Ryan Krill, CEO of Cape May Brewing Co. in Lower Township.

As of Tuesday, the agency reported on its website it is taking 52 days to process labels. Krill said the label approval process previously took one to two weeks.

The bureau is currently addressing applications it received Dec. 17. According to the website, any application submitted on or after that date has not been assigned to a specialist.

“We spent all this time coming up with new concepts and coming up with this expensive design work to do the labels and messages, and then when the TTB gets shut down, then that’s a huge issue,” Krill said.

Krill started his company eight years ago with his father, Bob, and business partner Chris Henke. It has since grown into one of the state’s largest craft breweries, with about 80 employees, distribution in two states and its own distribution company, Cape Beverage.

But the Tax and Trade Bureau shutdown interrupted the detailed planning that has become essential for the brewery.

“The key to a craft brewer is innovation,” said Krill, who employs an innovation brewer whose job is to find new ideas and recipes. “When that innovation pipeline is stopped, that really upsets all the innovation that craft brewers do throughout the United States.”

Stuart Stromfeld, managing partner at Tuckahoe Brewing Co. in Egg Harbor Township, said anything out of standard operating procedures is a concern.

“The trend in the industry is to literally change up, so you have your flagship beers, but the things that really seem to be hot right now are the beers that are the new and the different,” he said.

While longer wait times may impede innovation, local breweries have not been able to calculate the financial loss.

“Luckily we’re big enough so we can absorb these changes, but there are 7,000 other breweries in the U.S. that are affected by this issue,” Krill said.

Stormfeld said Tuckahoe Brewing, which submitted two or three label applications during the shutdown, has most likely not experienced the same financial setbacks as other breweries throughout the country.

“We’re lucky because we’re in a resort community, consequently the majority of our sales are toward the spring, summer and fall, not the winter, so right now we’re stockpiling products. They’re not flying out because it’s not our season,” he said.

Still, looking forward, a representative from Hidden Sands Brewing Co., which opened in Egg Harbor Township a little over a year ago, has concerns about meeting deadlines for its summer releases if the backlog continues.

The company reported it already had to cancel plans celebrate its one-year anniversary with the release of three canned beers.

It had submitted its labels, but the shutdown had stopped the approval process in time for the January anniversary. This halted the sale of more than 60 barrels of beer in their first canning run — three different styles and 20 barrels in each style.

For now, brewers don’t know what to expect if the government shuts down again after the Feb. 15 deadline.

Krill said Cape May Brewing has contingency plans and will re-release beers they’ve brewed in the past.

“We make a lot of really great beers, we’ve won countless awards for our beers and brewery, but we’re really excited about releasing these new concepts we’ve worked so hard on,” Krill said.

Can Whitesboro remain a cohesive community in changing times?

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Bernie Blanks points to his name on the blackboard in the small white schoolhouse on East Main Street.

The Whitesboro Grammar School operated from 1910 to 1967, teaching the children of this community from kindergarten until they went on to Middle Township High School. Behind a layer of Plexiglas in one room, the names of many who attended school there are written in chalk, along with the names of teachers.

“It was a very close community. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody went to school in Whitesboro until eighth grade,” Blanks said. “You got a great education. The teachers knew it was very important that you be prepared when you went on to high school. Everybody was pushed to get an education.”

When he was a student there in the 1950s, all of the students were black. In fact, the entire community was black, he said, with strong black-owned businesses catering to their neighbors.

“The town I grew up in was an all-black town. It’s no longer that, and that’s OK,” he said. “That’s what black people have fought for all this time, to be able to live where you want. It’s only reasonable that it would work the other way around.”

Foundation as a planned community

Whitesboro carries the name of George Henry White, a lawyer and Republican congressman from North Carolina. At times, White is described as the last black congressman of the Reconstruction era, when new laws enacted after the Civil War gave former slaves and other black men the vote and with it unprecedented political power.

But as Shirley Green of the Whitesboro Historical Foundation Museum says, White was not alone in founding the community. He just put in the most money. In about 1901, a group of black investors launched the Equitable Industrial Association, including White, the Rev. J.W. Fishburn, Booker T. Washington and Paul Laurence Dunbar, a celebrated poet and novelist.

The idea was to build a planned, self-reliant community for blacks without the discrimination faced elsewhere.

At one time, Green said, Whitesboro had farms and poultry operations to grow food, a sawmill, shops and other businesses. In her home, Green showed off numerous displays, including models of the sawmill and the old Wildwood Junction railroad station near Whitesboro, as well as posters outlining the history of the community.

Green continues to teach about the history of Whitesboro at schools and community events.

“We’ve been trying to preserve as much of the history as we can,” she said. Green feels the sense of Whitesboro as a distinct community is at risk.

“No question. Absolutely,” she said. “Whitesboro has a problem.”

Early this year, Whitesboro residents gathered at the Martin Luther King Center to hear plans for a new post office for their community. Postal Service representatives are looking for a spot to place a 12-by-40-foot trailer to operate as the new post office, including possibly the Whitesboro School property, owned by the township and leased to Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro.

For now, the post office boxes are in a corner of the MLK center. Some residents complained they were losing their Whitesboro ZIP code, 08252. As residents sign up for home delivery rather than a post office box, they are often listed in the Cape May Court House ZIP code, 08210. According to Green, that creates issues for deeds, insurance, package deliveries, even emergency response.

Community continues

Blanks is not certain people moving to Whitesboro now will feel as deep a sense of connection and belonging as did his generation. Freed from the weight of discrimination — or at least from some of its most public and virulent expression — the unique history and importance of a black community may not seem as important to some, he said. As older residents die and families move away, he’s afraid the Whitesboro where he grew up may become little more than a spot between two signs on Route 9.

But the community continues. Each year during Labor Day weekend, the Whitesboro Reunion draws big crowds. The event began in 1988 as a way to keep those community connections strong as people moved from the area for jobs.

Blanks points to a thriving homework club at the MLK Center and other activities. Plans call for new tennis courts at the center, and on the same night as the post office meeting, residents crowded the gym for the activities underway. Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro offers a scholarship program and events through the year.

“The community is as strong as it ever was,” said Cheryl Spaulding, the program administrator for Concerned Citizens.

Mayor Tim Donohue is sympathetic to those who worry about the sense of history in Whitesboro. As the township works on economic development, he said, officials try to keep in mind the character, identity and history of each of the communities that make up the township, he said.

But he sees some loss of the sense of distinct, separate communities spread throughout the township as inevitable.

“Whitesboro today is an integrated neighborhood of Middle Township. I think some people would look at that as progress. It’s an active, vibrant area with a lot of pride in the community,” he said.

Blanks said he’s seen a lot of streets fill in with new homes and sees a different town than the one he remembers, where he knew the name of every business owner and most of the residents.

“We still try to preserve the history of how Whitesboro got started and the purpose of it,” Blanks said. “You always want to preserve that history.”

PHOTOS from the 30th annual Whitesboro Reunion Festival

Ocean Resort Casino lost $23 million in 7 months, 'not in compliance' since November

ATLANTIC CITY — After losing nearly $23 million in its first seven months of operation, Ocean Resort Casino was approved by state regulators Wednesday for a complex financial deal so it can continue to operate during an ownership transition.

But, even after reviewing the proposal to keep the $2.4 billion megaresort open, gaming regulators expressed reservations about its viability going forward.

“This property has clearly had (a) very challenging (past), and I’m very, very concerned about its future,” said Casino Control Commission Vice Chairwoman Alisa Cooper. “I sincerely hope that this arrangement before us today will be successful and enable this property to survive.”

The three-member commission unanimously approved a joint petition for a divestiture trust agreement between the casino’s former principal owner, Bruce Deifik, and Luxor Capital Group, a New York-based hedge fund that provided significant funding for the property’s purchase in January 2018.

The commission also approved a request that the arrangement be administered by a designated trustee, Eric. J. Matejevich, a former chief operating officer of the closed Atlantic Club Casino Hotel.

“The proposed divestiture trust represents a unique vehicle through which Luxor, a qualified financial source of Ocean Resort, but not yet a casino licensee or casino licensee applicant, can invest in Ocean Resort to support it maintaining its financial stability,” said Chairman James Plousis. “With approval of the divestiture trust agreement and qualification of the trustee, we will not only maintain public confidence and trust in the credibility and integrity of the regulatory apparatus, but will advance the economic stability of Ocean Resort’s casino operations.”

Luxor will now begin the process of interim casino authorization, which could take up to 90 days for an investigation by the state Division of Gaming Enforcement and an additional 30 days for the commission to set a hearing on the authorization. Following approval for interim casino authorization, Luxor would then begin the more intensive, and lengthy, process of being qualified to hold a casino license.

Prior to the chairman’s remarks, Sara Ben-David, deputy attorney general with the DGE, outlined how the casino operators failed to meet several of the financial conditions placed upon Ocean Resort during its license hearing.

Among the 26 stipulations for approval of a casino license, Ocean Resort was required to maintain a daily operating cash balance of not less than $10 million, a casino bankroll of not less than $11 million and direct access to capital and debt service reserves of at least $15 million.

Ocean Resort was to immediately notify the DGE if it fell below the $36 million threshold at any point.

In mid-October, according to Ben-David’s testimony, the casino sought relief of the minimum requirement. Temporary relief of a $31 million requirement was granted and later extended until November.

“Since November 2018 (Ocean Resort) has not been in compliance with division requirements,” she said. “Discussion between (Ocean Resort) and its lenders resulted in the proposed transaction.”

A DGE report submitted to the commission Jan. 29 detailed just how precarious Ocean Resort’s financial situation has been. In September, the casino reported operating losses of $3.2 million. The next month, losses at Ocean totaled $4.1 million. In November the property lost $5.5 million, and in December it lost $5.8 million. Through the first 24 days of January, Ocean Resort reported operating losses of $4.1 million.

At the recommendation of the DGE, the commission approved the trust agreement but installed five additional conditions to “provide the state the ability to continue strict oversight,” said Plousis.

Luxor Capital and JPMorgan Chase Bank were primary lenders to Deifik, who purchased Ocean Resort for $229 million. The financing consisted of two bridge loans: $110 million from JPMorgan Chase and $122.5 million from Luxor. The JPMorgan loan was repaid in June with a second loan of $175 million from the bank.

The joint petition filed by Luxor and Deifik outlines how the recently announced $70 million investment by the hedge fund will be allocated. According to the petition, $50 million of Luxor’s investment will be used to reduce the principal balance owed to JPMorgan. The remaining $20 million will be used to acquire majority ownership interest of TEN RE.

Luxor has announced its intentions to construct the long-awaited buffet at Ocean Resort, as well as finish the uncompleted 12 hotel floors in the middle of the tower, which would add an additional 500 rooms to the existing 1,399.

In other commission business, Jason L. Gregorec was granted a temporary key casino employee license to serve as Tropicana Atlantic City’s vice president and general manager. Gregorec has casino experience in Detroit and with Tropicana’s property in Indiana. He takes over for Steve Callender, who was recently named senior vice president of operations for the East region of Tropicana’s parent company, Eldorado Resorts.