ATLANTIC CITY — The continued shutdown of the Atlantic City Rail Line is a headache for more than just commuters. Some conventions in the city are seeing fewer attendees, according to multiple expo leaders.
“We never really gave much thought to the value of the train until it was gone,” said Jon Henderson, CEO of Good Time Tricycle Productions, which will put on this year’s Atlantic City Beer and Music Fest later this month.
Atlantic City’s Convention Center tends to draw industries from a more regional pool than other convention destinations, according to Meet AC CEO Jim Wood.
The effect of the shutdown of the rail line to Philadelphia on convention attendance is tough to quantify, but those who run some of the biggest events in the resort have taken notice since the line’s shutdown in September of last year.
Michael Cohan, director of the New Jersey Education Association, saw a clear drop in attendance numbers at his organization’s yearly conference for educators in November.
“The reduction in attendance in 2018 was directly attributable to the train,” Cohan said.
Attendance dropped eight percent from the year before, he said. He looked at their drop and daily ridership numbers from the year before and felt comfortable correlating the two, given his past experience.
“We know that people used to pour in from the train station when the trains arrived,” Cohan said.
There were talks to run additional buses to the city but they fell apart.
“Working together with MeetAC, we attempted to put some buses on to at least replace some of the seats lost by the suspension of the rail line,” he said. “But I think by the time we were able to communicate that out to our members, they had already made their decision. They were either gonna drive … or they were not coming.”
Last week, NJ Transit chief Kevin Corbett announced the line would be up and running by May 24, after public pressure from Gov. Phil Murphy, who appointed him to the agency’s top spot after taking office in January 2018.
Some conventions will be held before that re-open date, like Beer Fest. And Henderson is bracing for impact.
About 3,000 people came by train last year, he said. Enough people arrive by rail, he said, that he remembers being offered extra rail cars in the past.
The Beer Fest is an event where alcohol flows freely, and attendees need to get home afterward — that’s the “safety aspect” of the shutdown’s effects, Henderson said.
“We’ve got attendees trying to be responsible, and willing to pay NJ Transit to get there safely,” he said. “And they’re not opening the rail line.”
So while it may be early to call it, he expects a drop.
“People might probably pull back and say ‘Hey, I really want to imbibe and have a good time but not if I can’t be responsible doing so,’” he said.
At the Progressive Insurance Atlantic City Boat Show that ran from last Wednesday to this Sunday, show manager Jon Pritko said attendance numbers were up, which has been the trend for the last few years, but the line’s closure has had some effect.
“That said, we did receive attendee feedback that (some previous attendees) skipped this year’s show due to the suspended train service,” Pritko said, “and our dealers and exhibitors remarked that several of their Philly clients did not make the trip.”
Jay Silberman, president of GPK Auctions, which produces the Atlantic City Auction & Car Show every February, said it is hard to notice its effect because they saw a significant jump in advance ticket sales this year, and the floor was visibly crowded, but he is accustomed to seeing tons of people pouring out of trains for the show.
“Can I say for sure that we didn’t lose people because of the train?” Silberman said. “It’s hard to say.”
He theorizes that since the line has been shut down since September, some of those affected may have figured out other ways to get here.
However, the train remains important to attendance numbers, he said.
Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, said the effect of the shutdown on their 2018 conference in November was more nuanced.
Rail riders opted for the bus that commuters have relied on since September, he said. But attendees had to figure out the jitney service and how to get from the terminal to the center and hotel.
“It’s throwing people off. It’s kind of awkward,” Darcy said. “But it’s not like it’s going to mean that we’ll have fewer people attending the conference. It’s more of an inconvenience at this point than a real harm.”
Convention organizers are split on that point, it seems, but all agreed that the train was an essential part of attracting visitors here.
In January, Wood was asked about directing funds to market the train’s utility at a meeting to announce Meet AC’s 2019 Marketing and Sales Plan.
“In terms of investing dollars into subsidizing transportation, there’s nothing set aside right now,” Wood said. “Is it needed? I mean, yeah, there’s a great debate about that. It’s probably for other groups to have that conversation, than really what we’re licensed and charged to do.”
And Corbett was asked in February about the possibility of increased frequency of rides on the Atlantic City line in the future. The agency has to “walk before (we) run,” he said. And it would require greater funding, he said, but he liked the idea.
After the agency handles more pressing matters, “Then … the fun part of my job will be expanding service,” Corbett said. “There are a number of opportunities in Atlantic City; we’d love to expand service. But that is a financial issue: Where do we expand? When?”
SEA ISLE CITY — It was a familiar scene in town last September: A family driving through the north end during a coastal flooding event had to be saved by emergency officials. Their car died as it struggled to push through water that inundated the street.
The husband, wife and newborn from Stafford Township were one of 20 car rescues that day, said police Chief Thomas McQuillen on Monday as the city behind him unveiled its new, $226,000 flood alert system, the largest in New Jersey.
Nearly 80 blinking flood warning signs have been installed on poles throughout the city, some equipped with sensors and cameras. It’s meant to prevent people from driving through flooded roads and creating wakes that can damage nearby homes.
“We do have a lot of out-of-town visitors and people who aren’t as familiar with the roadways,” McQuillen said. “A system like this is critical in real time getting the information out.”
Sea Isle City, like other shore communities, anticipates increased flooding in the face of sea level rise, and it’s generating creative solutions to familiar problems.
In North Wildwood, officials passed a “No Wake Zone” ordinance to require drivers to pass through flooded streets slowly enough to avoid creating waves. Sea Isle is considering a similar plan.
“As you see many times, those with big trucks and SUVs think it’s all good to go through the waters, and they cause more damage than they realize,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio said.
Five of the 78 signs throughout the city have metal boxes attached to them. A fiber-optic chord runs from the pole’s base to the box. When it floods, the chord sends a signal to illuminate the sign.
A camera at the top of the pole simultaneously snaps 15 photos of the street and sends them to the city’s police station a few miles away, where a dispatcher confirms the flooding and alerts the public via text message, email or recorded message.
It’s based off the same technology used in speed radar signs.
“We already had that technology. ... I thought ‘Maybe it would work with this,’” said Rob Roth, senior application engineer at TAPCO, the system’s manufacturer.
Roth pointed to the metal box, filled with colored wires, showing onlookers a demonstration of the system. Each “master pole” is solar-powered and will function even during power outages. The fiber-optic chord can be raised or lowered to only capture specific water levels.
Officers can also alert the dispatch center to flooding as they drive around the city and ask dispatchers to manually turn on the signs’ lights.
Most major roads in the two-mile resort are now equipped, including on Landis Avenue, Central Avenue, Sounds Avenue and Park Road. Signs also are at the foot of both sides of the Townsend Inlet Bridge and at the JFK Boulevard bridge.
The cost was shared between Sea Isle City and Cape May County.
Sea Isle City is beefing up its alert system for more frequent flooding in other ways, with global sea levels expected to rise by eight feet by 2100, one Rutgers study found. Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a study that found that the Jersey Shore could see $1.6 billion a year in damages from flooding.
In February, officials installed a web camera at the city’s public safety building to monitor frequent flooding there. A live stream is not available for the public yet. The $5,000 web camera, funded through an OceanFirst Bank grant, will let seasonal residents view conditions at their summer homes.
The Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday released the preliminary report for its study on New Jersey’s back-bay flooding, and it contains some multi-billion dollar engineering projects.
Under consideration are storm surge barriers in the Great Egg Harbor and Absecon inlets.
The moveable gates would stretch across the mouths of the inlets and close during storms to prevent water from entering the bays and inundating nearby homes.
Of 3,400 miles of shoreline, such barriers “are viable options at Manasquan Inlet, Barnegat Inlet, Absecon Inlet and/or Great Egg Harbor Inlet,” according to the report. The Hereford Inlet and Brigantine Inlet were ruled out for being costly compared with the benefits it could provide.
“We look at the costs and benefits. ... Is the cost of building the structure less than the benefits?” said J.B. Smith, an Army Corps project manager.
Storm surge barriers are multi-billion dollar engineering feats, and funding for the Army Corps’ ideas is not in place yet.
One built in the Netherlands in the 1990s, called Maeslantkering, is controlled by a supercomputer and automatically shuts when flooding is imminent. It took six years to build and cost 450 million euros. The Army Corps has proposed a similar storm surge barrier in New York City.
The report also says higher floodwalls or levees are feasible in Cape May, Wildwood, Sea Isle City and a number of other shore towns. Floodwalls, more effective than bulkheads for flood reduction, could be built three to five feet higher and deeper into the ground, Smith said.
There are drawbacks to that though. Building floodwalls close to homes can be difficult and may hurt views of the bay.
“One of the cons for flood walls is they have an impact on aesthetics. ... And some of the construction is complicated in the vicinity of houses,” Smith said.
The New Jersey Sierra Club opposed the report’s suggestions for hard structures like floodwalls and storm surge barriers that may greatly alter natural habitats.
The organization prefers other flood mitigation strategies outlined in the report, including living shorelines, wetland restorations and retreating from barrier islands.
“(Seawalls and gates) will stop the flushing of Bays and tidal areas, keeping pollutants trapped such as toxic sediments,” the group’s president, Jeff Tittel, said in a statement.
The preliminary report identified general environmental impacts but said quantifying the effect on animals and wetlands would be difficult at this early stage in the study.
Floodwalls and levees may lead to habitat loss at wetlands and submerged aquatic vegetation, according to the report. Storm surge barriers could significantly impact tidal flow, tidal range, water quality and flora and fauna.
“A detailed examination of impact avoidance and minimization to better quantify both direct and indirect environmental impacts will also be performed in the future,” the report says.
The study, launched in 2016, is one of the first steps in the Army Corps’ decades-long look into how to ease bay flooding, where there have historically been fewer investments compared with the oceanfront. The public weighed in during meetings last year in Ventnor and Toms River. Further analyses need to be completed and funding from Congress secured, so the earliest that construction could begin is 2030.
The cost of the study is being shared by the Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps.
VINELAND — The city Police Department gained its first Hispanic deputy chief last month after Pedro Casiano was promoted to the rank after almost two decades with the department.
“The whole objective of becoming a cop, for me, was to police my community,” Casiano said last week. “This is my home; it’s my community.”
The move toward diverse police departments is nothing new as departments strive to mirror the communities they serve. Across the U.S., 27 percent of full-time sworn officers are members of racial or ethnic minorities, and African-American and Hispanic officers each comprise about 12 percent, according to the Department of Justice’s 2016 Advancing Diversity in Law Enforcement report.
In his new role, Casiano will receive a $145,000 annual salary, according to the city’s personnel director.
The Atlantic City Police Department also swore in its first Hispanic lieutenant in the history of the department, Wilber Santiago, last week along with six sergeants.
“These promotions also display the diversity that is necessary to have a police department that reflects the community it serves,” Mayor Frank M. Gilliam Jr. said in a news release announcing the promotions. “This is one more step toward improving policing in our great city.”
There are now 154 full-time officers in the Vineland Police Department, the most the department has ever had, Chief Rudy Bue said, with approximately 18 black, 14 female and 58 Hispanic officers, both patrol and rank.
Casiano, 48, wasn’t born and raised in Vineland, but came to the city in 1987, and started his career in law enforcement with the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office in 1998, he said. He started with the Vineland Police Department in early 2000.
He last worked for the department as a captain of the Patrol Division before he was sworn in as deputy chief at a ceremony Feb. 11.
“My object is to work as close as possible with chief,” he said. “I know he’s headed in the right direction, and add some of my thoughts on where we should be and hopefully collaborate. We can work together to get this agency, which is already moving in the right direction, there.”
This year, Casiano and Bue are working on two big projects with the department, moving to a new building and rolling out stun guns.
The new police headquarters, which is being constructed across the street from the current building, cost $20 million plus, Bue said, and is going to be more than twice the size of the current building.
Casiano said they’re hoping to move into the new building by June, while the stun gun roll out will happen slowly over the next five years, but starting in the next few months.
“The biggest problem that we have with it is it’s cost-prohibitive,” Beu said, adding it’s about $2,000 for each officer to be outfitted. “They’re more expensive than buying handguns. But we’re trying to roll it out so it’s another less-than-lethal force alternative that we want our officers to have.”
Being the first Hispanic deputy chief in the department’s history doesn’t weigh on him, Casiano said.
“I think the title itself is the weight,” he said. “Me being Hispanic — some people like to promote that. For me, the job is the job. So, regardless of what nationality I am, it really has no effect as far as that, for me.”
However, the city has a large Hispanic population, Casiano said, and his nationality can make Spanish-speakers more comfortable talking to him.
“Because some of them don’t speak English all that well, and they feel more comfortable talking in Spanish, and I’m able to communicate with them,” he said. “So, they feel more at ease and they communicate with me easier. But, other than that, the job is the job.”