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Atlantic City deems Sister Jean's Kitchen location unsafe

ATLANTIC CITY — City officials have deemed the 163-year-old church that houses Sister Jean’s Kitchen unsafe, forcing the decades-old charity to vacate the premises by Thursday.

Further complicating matters for the nonprofit organization is that plans to relocate its services out of the Tourism District have fallen apart and left officials without a viable alternative to continue providing for those in need.

Dale Finch, director of the city’s licensing and inspection department, said the Victory First Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Pennsylvania and Pacific avenues, was inspected Jan. 17. Finch said the building was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and its condition has continued to deteriorate.

Anthony Cox, a city construction department official, said the inspection revealed both exterior and interior deficiencies, including rot and deterioration that made the structure unsafe.

“The sanctuary area is really in bad shape,” said Cox. “So much so that you can look up into the ceiling and see through to the sky.”

Cox said before the city can allow the church facilities to be used again, a detailed engineering report on repairs and remediation is required. A notice to vacate was posted Monday and the premises must be clear by Thursday, he said.

“Absent (a report addressing the structural issues), the entire area is considered unsafe,” Cox said.

Sister Jean’s, which serves about 300 meals a day, was slated to relocate to the closed St. Monica’s Catholic Church, on North Pennsylvania Avenue, more than a year ago.

In June 2017, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved up to $1 million for Sister Jean’s as part of its Pacific Avenue Midtown Redevelopment Project, which aimed to move the kitchen — along with the John Brooks Recovery Center now in Pleasantville — outside the authority’s Tourism District. The CRDA-approved resolution outlined the scope of project — estimated at $936,121 — and required all plans comply with all city codes and ordinances.

Sister Jean’s Kitchen purchased three buildings from St. Monica’s church in August 2017, according to the nonprofit’s executive director, the Rev. John Scotland, spending reserve funds to buy the properties.

The nonprofit had intended to use the CRDA funding to improve the St. Monica’s buildings and relocate, but the authority found flaws with the plan.

According to Scotland, CRDA directed the nonprofit to Joseph Jingoli, a local developer and co-owner of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, who has assisted other charities, including Turning Point Day Center for the Homeless.

“We offered to construction manage it, for free, for (Scotland) and help him through it,” Jingoli said.

After reviewing the plans that Sister Jean’s own developer had come up with, Jingoli said the relocation proposal did not account for building code requirements, such as those required after Hurricane Sandy or the Americans with Disabilities Act, which increased cost estimates for the project.

The $1 million from CRDA was not going to be enough to cover the project’s cost and, absent a definitive plan, the allocated funding expired.

Scotland said the nonprofit currently does not have a certificate of occupancy from the city to operate out of the new property and, even if it did, the location is not outfitted to serve the homeless.

The nonprofit was not opposed to moving out of the Tourism District, Scotland said, as long as it could continue operation somewhere else.

Statement from Sister Jean's Kitchen

He said the move became less certain after former Mayor Don Guardian left office. According to Scotland, Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. has not answered the group’s letters and remains unresponsive to the organization’s questions about where to go.

“He has effectively blocked us from going to Saint Monica’s, and he has not given us any alternative of another place to move,” Scotland said.

Gilliam did not respond to requests for comment left with his office.

Scotland said he is still open to talking with the mayor for a plan to relocate.

In the meantime, the kitchen’s food pantries and freezers are full, and four full-time employees who live in the city currently work there.

“We’ll stay open as long as we possibly can,” he said.

Chris Grove, 45, has been going to Sister Jean’s several days a week for the past two months since coming to Atlantic City from Kentucky. Grove was among the dozens of Jean’s regulars who were saddened by the news Monday.

“I guess I’ll go to the Salvation Army,” he answered when asked where he would find a meal after Thursday. “They serve lunch, too.”

But several people leaving Jean’s lunch service Monday said other places in the city routinely run out of food. One man, who would only provide a first name of Henry, said city officials were asking for trouble by forcing people with nothing to lose to find other ways to survive.

“You want to shut down the only place in Atlantic City that can feed 300-plus a day? I hope the city is not about to start a war they don’t want to finish,” he said. “Some of these people, if they don’t have anywhere to eat, they’re going to take what they want.”

Demolition ordered for collapsing Middle Township train station

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — At the end of West Main Street behind a veil of spindly pines in a community once known as Wildwood Junction, a piece of local history slowly dissolves.

Sections of the roof of an old train station have caved in. The building has been vacant for years, if not decades.

“I would like to see it torn down,” said Bill Markee, who lives across the street from the station. “I would like to see it gone. And that would eliminate all of the problems.”

He seems likely to get his wish.

Construction officer Salvatore DeSimone this week issued an order condemning the building as unsafe.

If the unsafe conditions are not corrected, the order reads, the building must be demolished by Feb. 21. Otherwise the owner could face fines of as much as $2,000 a week.

Markee, a retired Cape May County sheriff’s officer who works summers at a Wildwood hotel, brought his concerns about the building to a recent Township Committee meeting.

He said squatters sometimes live in the building, and alleges drugs were sold from it at one point.

It has been boarded up more than once, but it does not take long for people to knock holes in the boards and get back in, he said.

Code enforcement officers visited the site, township administrator Kim Krauss said. Officials reached out to the building’s owner, the New Jersey Department of Transportation, to try to get any issues addressed.

“We want to give them the opportunity to comply and clean up the building,” she said before DeSimone’s condemnation was issued.

An NJ Transit official indicated this week that the building is not their responsibility.

“New Jersey Transit does own the station, but it is leased and maintained by Cape May Seashore,” said Kate Thompson, a public information officer with NJ Transit.

Cape May Seashore Lines operates tourist rail lines. The railroad ran from Rio Grande to Cape May for years, until damage to the track and the bridge over the Cape May Canal ended that excursion route. More recently it has run from Richland to Tuckahoe, with a Valentine’s Express ride between those stations advertised on the rail line’s website.

Attempts to contact Cape May Seashore Lines and Tony Macrie, the rail line’s founder and general manager, were unsuccessful. There was no response to emailed requests for comment, and the listed number for the rail line went instead to an automated telephone survey.

Krauss confirmed that Cape May Seashore Lines holds the lease on the property. She said she has spoken to Macrie, who plans to explore options for securing the building. But even if the organization leased the property, Krauss said, the owners would ultimately be responsible for the structure.

Thompson said she could not discuss details of the lease, including how much is being paid for the use of the building.

Township officials have pushed to address vacant and abandoned buildings. Township Committee devoted a November workshop meeting to the issue. Officials heard that more than 90 buildings are vacant in the township, with issues in every community, and about 210 properties in foreclosure. At that meeting, police Chief Christopher Leusner described the issue as a matter of public safety. In Middle Township, the code enforcement office falls under the Police Department.

On a cold afternoon, no one was in the old train station, but there were signs of occasional habitation. Empty beer and vodka bottles lay in the woods around the site and a moldering collection of clothes was strewn outside. Empty food boxes and more clothes could be seen inside.

Plywood boards covered the windows and doors, but on the side facing the track, a jagged hole in the wood allowed plenty of room for someone to enter. A smaller hole on the other side was used to pass drugs out of the building, according to Markee.

From Markee’s fenced lawn, it would be easy to miss the old station, shrouded behind the trees. A white Neighborhood Watch sign stands nearby. Years ago, Markee said, there was a flag pole and a monument on an island between his street and a narrow pull-off where he said people once caught the train. The pole and the old cannon are long gone, with trees growing where they stood.

Just past the stand of trees surrounding the old station are the out-of-use train tracks. The Cape May Seashore Lines ran Halloween and Christmas trains on the track, Markee said. Before that, the train ran from Camden to Cape May, with a spur line running from the station across the marsh to Wildwood.

At one time, it was a busy rail line, bringing tourists to seashore towns throughout Cape May County. None of those interviewed were sure how old the building is, but similar railroad buildings that have been preserved in Tuckahoe, Ocean City and Cold Spring were built in the 1890s. Thompson at the DOT said it is at least 75 years old and has not operated as a station in more than 30 years.

Passenger rail service to Wildwood ended in the 1950s, with the last cargo train running in 1974, according to a posted history of Wildwood.

Markee does not believe the building could be saved at this point. Maybe 10 years ago it could have been renovated, he said, but he believes it is too far gone, and that it will be difficult to get action from NJ Transit.

“Nobody’s going to do anything because it’s the state,” he said. “If this were on my property, they’d have been all over me years ago.”

This story has been modified with comments from NJ Transit. {/span}

Host city still unknown for next Miss America pageant

The home of the 2020 Miss America pageant is still up in the air. Las Vegas officials said a return to the city is not in the cards.

The Miss America Organization reached out to Vegas late last year. According to documents obtained through an Open Public Records request, Anita Weiss of events management company Experient sent marketing coordinators at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority a 14-page Request For Proposal for hosting the event.

“We do not have plans to host Miss America,” Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority communications manager Jackie Dennis said.

The Miss America Organization has not responded for comment.

The Miss America 2019 Competition was the final year in a three-year state subsidy contract between the Miss America Organization and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

The RFP states the preferred dates of 2020 and 2021 competitions would be the weeks before and after the Labor Day holiday. The MAO also requires the host city to provide more than 4,289 individual room stays for staff, contestants, family and pageant judges during the pageant’s two weeks.

A complimentary Presidential Suite is to be provided for MAO chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and a complimentary two-bedroom suite for CEO Regina Hopper. Several office spaces in the competition venue, complimentary WiFi, event spaces and a $2.5 million to $4.9 million financial subsidy from the host city are also a part of the MAO’s requests.

The RFP stated proposals from the cities were to be submitted to MAO CEO Regina Hopper by Oct. 12, 2018, with a decision on the host city of Miss America to be made in December.

As of Monday, no announcement has been made of a host city.

CRDA provided $4.325 million annually as a top sponsor for the production of the competition.

With the CRDA’s spending questioned by state officials, the contract was not renewed and Miss America then had to find a new financier for their production.

Members of the CRDA have previously said they are not opposed to having the pageant in Atlantic City, but not at the same price the city paid for the past six years.

On Miss America web forums, fans have suggested locations such as Orlando, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; and keeping the pageant in Atlantic City.

The Miss America pageant was held in Las Vegas for eight years, before returning to Atlantic City in 2013.

In 2005, under the direction of then-CEO Art McMaster, the pageant announced it would be leaving Atlantic City for Las Vegas. According to Press archives, McMaster cited financial issues due to low ratings and ticket sales, which caused the MAO to sever a contract with Boardwalk Hall in favor of a 7,000-seat theater inside the former Aladdin hotel and casino. The pageant date also moved, with Miss America 2006 Jennifer Berry crowned on Jan. 21, instead of the traditional Sunday following the Labor Day weekend.