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Fusion Church opens at new Egg Harbor Township site

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Abby Pease used to arrive at 6:45 a.m. Sunday mornings at the Regal Hamilton Commons in Mays Landing to set up two movie theaters for Fusion Church services that started at 10 a.m.

“You are putting all the sound together, running wires, setting up drum kits. You are literally doing all the setup, all the lighting. Video projectors have to come out,” said Pease, 33, who added they set up a second theater for children’s services. “Our volunteers, they were crazy. They were there building a tabernacle, building a church, every week.”

No one complained because doing the work gave the volunteers ownership, and they were able to see what their contribution accomplished, but every week, they were rushing to break everything down, Pease said.

“We were doing the end of the service, and (movie) previews would come on,” said Pease, a worship leader with the church.

After three years at the Regal, the worship team musicians and singers can now sleep a little bit later on Sunday mornings.

The nondenominational Fusion Church opened Sept. 22 in a new, high-profile location inside the former Diamond Furniture building on the Black Horse Pike.

This location was selected because Fusion’s original location in Somers Point had run out of space, and the majority of the worshipers were driving from the township, Lead Pastor Brendon Wilson said.

The purchase of the land and the structure, the conversion of the building into a church and the construction of the parking lot were part of a $4.3 million project, which Wilson said was a good deal. If the church was built from scratch from the ground up, it would have cost between $12 and $14 million, according to the general contractor, Mike Chambers, owner of Modus Construct & Consult.

The Somers Point site is still in operation and is the only place to attend Saturday services. The Regal is no longer used.

Practically, it is easier for the worship team to just plug in and go at the start and not have to pack up everything at the end at the new spot, Pease said. The new church is nicer than the movie theater, but they both felt like home, she said.

“What is so cool about Pastor Brendon and Pastor Danielle’s vision and what they taught us is it doesn’t matter what building we are in, we are just worshiping,” Pease said. “It’s not really about where we are inside. It’s about the people around us.”

The strategic renovation of the Diamond Furniture building from a mercantile location to an assembly space started February of last year, Chambers said.

The building was close to 40 years old, but it only had two bathrooms on the first floor on a septic system. It now has 31 toilets and urinals on public sewer and water, Chambers said.

There were only 58 parking spaces for the Diamond Furniture store, but by purchasing the adjacent lot to the west, they were able to have enough space for a total of 271 parking spaces, Chambers said.

Instead of the front entrance to the church facing the Black Horse Pike, Chambers and his crew had to carve out space from an existing wall to create enough room for three pairs of doors facing the parking area, Chambers said.

“It was a bigger job with a lot of moving parts,” said Chambers, who added it took 24 months of approvals for a 9-foot deceleration lane to enter the property off the Black Horse Pike traveling west.

The original plan was to start having services in the building last December, but because there was more rain here last year than in Seattle, Washington, the occupancy was delayed nine months, Chambers said.

One of the major reasons the former Diamond Furniture was chosen as the place for a new Fusion Church was the convenience of its location off a major road when people are traveling from as far away as Millville, Vineland and Cherry Hill, Camden County, Wilson said.

The Somers Point location is only 1,350 square feet. With 40,000-square-feet here, Fusion Church was looking for a facility that could house its future growth and also handle community outreach and community assistance programs, Wilson said.

“During Hurricane Sandy (in 2012), we housed multiple recovery teams,” Wilson said about the Somers Point church. “We wanted to find a place that would not just be a church on Sunday mornings, but a community center during the week,” Wilson said.

Fusion Church's Anne Dice finds her "Happy Place" in her family room in her Palermo home

Early indicators point to strong summer for tourism in South Jersey

Still months from a complete picture, early indicators for Cape May County and Atlantic City suggest tourism in South Jersey — consistently a primary economic driver — had a standout year.

In Atlantic City, gaming revenue across the summer months, and revenue from the luxury tax through July, indicate a strong year for tourism to the resort, according to Larry Sieg, director of communications and marketing for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

A complete picture for both Atlantic City and Cape May County won’t be available until later in the year, when certain numbers are released. Still, there are positive signs.

Sieg said the state Division of Gaming Enforcement has yet to release this year’s hotel occupancy rate. But through July, the luxury tax income in Atlantic City was around $24 million dollars, an increase of 11% over the previous year, according to Sieg.

“I think we’re gonna see some really good results,” Sieg said. “We’re waiting now on the August and September numbers.”

Some data points suggest a record season for tourism spending and the number of visitors to Cape May County this summer, according to the county Department of Tourism and Public Information.

Freeholder E. Marie Hayes, liaison to the Cape May County Department of Tourism, said Memorial Day weekend broke records for many businesses, and there was 100% occupancy for July 4 weekend.

“The numbers are compelling and point to what I have witnessed in my travels around the county,” Hayes said.

The department drew its predictions from occupancy tax collection from the beginning of the year through July, which was up 8.4% over 2018 — an increase of $544,922. July alone generated almost half the income of the first six months, and the collection through the end of the month was just over $7 million.

Occupancy tax in 2018 brought in a total of $12.5 million, said Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland.

The county’s tourism industry ranks second to Atlantic County.

It may stay that way as gaming revenue figures show Atlantic City, the county’s chief tourism draw, had a strong year.

Gaming revenue in the summer months jumped about 16% over last year; nongaming revenue at casinos, only available on a quarterly basis, went up about 18%; and traffic going through the Pleasantville toll plaza was up 1.74% over the summer months, said Rummy Pandit, executive director of Stockton University’s Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming Hospitality & Tourism.

The Atlantic County lodging fee was up 6.7% in June and 6.4% in July, Pandit said.

Another measure of a robust tourism season: the success of big events. The CRDA invested about $152,000 in the Atlantic City Airshow. While the economic impact figures have yet to be released for this year, 400,000 visitors to the show in 2018 translated to about $45 million in spending in the city, according to Sieg. This year, about 546,000 people came for the show.

“So, of course, we’re going to see definitely an uptick in the economic impact,” Sieg said.

Cape May County still outpaces the rest of the state in tourism spending in the food and beverage, retail, recreation and rental income sectors, according to Wieland. That could be paying off, according to their early estimates of tourism’s performance over the summer.

Another factor: special events, restaurants, retail outlets and agri-tourism sectors such as wineries and birding have helped lure visitors and second-home owners back during the “shoulder seasons,” according to Freeholder Gerald M. Thornton.

“Businesses are staying open longer and playing a large part in the county’s expanding economy,” Thornton said. “Tourism is the economic driver in Cape May County, generating 60% of the total employment and complements new and emerging industries that the county has been aggressively pursuing, such as aviation and technology.”

State Board of Ed continues discussion on how to replace PARCC

TRENTON — The debate over how to revamp New Jersey’s state standardized test continues as State Board of Education members Wednesday tabled discussion on a proposal to put in place testing and graduation requirements for current seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade students in line with a court order.

The latest proposal, which would amend a 2018 proposal from the Department of Education, is based on a 2018 court ruling striking down the state’s use of multi-year assessments as a requirement for graduation.

Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said the proposal currently before the state board is “one step” and “a compromise” in the state’s transition of its current standardized tests.

“But it’s the best approach to avoid over-testing in high school, while still providing schools with years of continuous assessment data,” he said.

The proposal considered Wednesday came as a surprise to Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, who penned an op-ed in the Asbury Park Press condemning the changes as “directly contrary to the department’s own messaging from last year that 11th grade was too late to test and remediate students.”

“We must not throw thoughtful compromise and consideration of what is best for students out the window,” Ruiz wrote. “This was a plan all parties agreed to until politics reared its ugly head, and now our students may be worse without it. I ask again that the administration support the path that gives the greatest flexibility to their department to do the best by our students.”

Last year, the State Board of Education introduced a proposal that would eliminate some of the required state testing in high school. That proposal was advertised in the New Jersey Register for public comment in November 2018.

Shortly after, in a New Year’s Eve decision, a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, struck down the New Jersey Department of Education’s 2016 revision to state graduation requirements requiring two year-end Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests before obtaining a high school diploma.

The court said the current test requirements were contrary to the intent of the Legislature’s Proficiency Standards and Assessments Act, which specifically stated one test would be administered in 11th grade.

In order to provide a clear path to graduation for the students affected by the court’s decision while the state developed a new plan for standard testing, the court approved an agreement to allow students in the classes of 2019 through 2022 to graduate using the state’s 2019 graduation rules, which included the broadest options for standardized tests.

The State Board of Education on Wednesday took up for consideration a proposal that adheres to the court rulings and sets out a similar path to graduation for the students currently in seventh, eighth and ninth grade who would graduate from 2023 to 2025.

“This compromise keeps two years of testing in high school while still meeting the mandate in state law for an 11th-grade graduation assessment,” Repollet said.

Stan Karp, director of secondary reform project for Education Law Center, one of the plaintiffs in the graduation requirement lawsuit against the state, said it was important that the rules include a variety of options for students to meet graduation requirements. Karp said he was glad the latest proposal includes those options.

Karp said the board must take up a vote on the amended proposal before the first week of November or the 2018 proposal will expire.

The proposal includes testing in English and math in ninth grade to meet federal standards, and in grade 11 for the state graduation assessment requirement.

New Jersey Education Association spokeswoman Dawn Hiltner called the proposal “a step in the right direction.”

“New Jersey currently requires more testing than any other state in the nation. Reducing the number of tests at the high school level allows for a greater emphasis on curriculum and instruction, which is what truly has an impact on student growth,” Hiltner said.

She said those opposed to reducing the number of statewide assessments may believe it will result in less data, but that is not the case.

“While state assessments are important, they are a small piece of the overall student evaluation puzzle,” she said.

N.J. to require more frequent lead testing in schools

BERGENFIELD — Public schools in New Jersey will have to test their water for lead twice as often as they do now and share the results on a yet-to-be-created state database under guidelines announced Monday by officials.

The announcement continues a series of measures catalyzed by the recent water crisis in Newark, where residents in 14,000 homes with lead pipes have been given bottled water since mid-August after limited tests showed some filters weren’t adequately reducing lead levels.

Lead in drinking water has been linked to developmental delays in children and can damage the brain, red blood cells and kidneys. It is most often caused by lead service lines — pipes connecting a home to a water main — or lead fixtures in a home or school.

The state Legislature is holding hearings and the state Department of Environmental Protection is stepping up its inventory of lead pipes in water systems around the state, a process that started earlier in the year.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy was joined Monday at the Herbert Hoover Elementary School by Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer, whose office recently surveyed more than 80 school districts that are located in his district across four counties in northern and western New Jersey.

Gottheimer found that about 20% of the school districts didn’t post information on lead testing on their websites, and in other cases, the information was difficult to find.

“Are the results posted so parents can find them in an easily accessible way? As a dad, I want to know,” Gottheimer said. “And I want to be able to look at that and quickly make a decision. And I think the steps we’re taking today will help to that end.”

Murphy added that schools that fail to comply with reporting requirements could face certain penalties.

“This problem has been building over decades, up and down our state and across the country,” Murphy said.

Under existing guidelines, schools are required to test for lead every six years. Murphy said Monday that will be reduced to three years.

Earlier this month, public records from the DEP’s lead pipe inventory obtained by The Associated Press showed the state has about 160,000 lead pipes, though that number was incomplete because it included some partial results from about three-quarters of the state’s nearly 600 water systems.

Officials have said they expect the number to rise.

The sustained focus comes as the state’s biggest city grapples with positive tests for lead in drinking water. Wider sampling of city-issued filters in Newark showed potentially 99% are effective, and the distribution of bottled water is being scaled back this week.

Last spring, the city switched the chemicals it was using to treat its water supply after tests showed the previous treatment was failing.

It is facing a federal lawsuit that claims it failed to adequately notify residents or act quickly enough when it became clear lead levels were rising. The city has denied the allegations.