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3 people were hit by cars in Vineland in 9 days. Now there's a push to make the streets safer

VINELAND — Just before noon Friday, Gregory Miller used a crosswalk to get across Delsea Drive, but as he crossed Landis Avenue, he veered out of the designated area, saving himself 20 feet by walking into oncoming traffic.

“He started out doing the right thing,” city police Sgt. Nick Dounoulis said. “If he was struck, God forbid, he would have been at fault.”

And, worse, pedestrians have been killed.

The city saw three pedestrian accidents within nine days in January, two of them fatal, and police are working to educate and enforce traffic safety laws.

Last year, the entire county only saw two total pedestrian accidents.

Since March 1, the department has issued approximately 60 fines to pedestrians who illegally crossed streets in the city, including high-volume roads like Delsea Drive and Landis Avenue.

Miller, 54, of Bridgeton, said he “wanted to make his trip faster” by cutting into traffic. He didn’t know about the recent fatalities, but after hearing about them, he said he wouldn’t change the way he crosses streets.

“I feel like I’m a safe person,” he said.

Dounoulis, who heads the department’s Traffic Safety Unit, said the city is in the top 14 in the state for pedestrian crashes, and they’re trying to lower the ranking.

They started with an educational campaign in October after receiving a $15,000 state grant, and officers hit the streets to pass out information in English and Spanish on pedestrian and traffic laws, he said. They have also visited schools, soup kitchens and senior centers to reach as many people as they can.

Around that same time, pedestrian crashes started to happen more frequently, Dounoulis said. From October through January, they’ve had five pedestrian crashes, he said.

“The thing is just to get the word out and talk to people about pedestrian safety,” he said. “What I preach to pedestrians is that the roadway is meant for vehicles.”

In March, the department pivoted from education to enforcement to drive the point home to pedestrians.

“Some people feel like we’re picking on them, but the laws are out there for the safety of the people,” he said. “We don’t want to sit there and give out tickets. We want to teach them.”

When looking at the crashes, he said, investigations show that the majority of the time, pedestrians are at fault. They’re walking on the road instead of the sidewalk, wearing dark-colored clothing at night, are intoxicated or on their phones and not paying attention.

“You have to be vigilant,” he said. “If you start putting everything together with what the motorist is doing, it can become the perfect storm.”

Praful Thakkar, 64, owner of Todd’s New Agency on Delsea Drive, said pedestrians cross wherever they want without thinking about their safety or the safety of drivers on the road.

It got so bad a couple of months ago that he called city police, who came out to check on the issue, he said.

“I think it’s getting a little bit better, but it’s a serious issue for this town,” he said, attributing the behavior to a “lack of discipline.”

Pedestrian crashes are 95% preventable, Dounoulis said.

“Even if you didn’t know the law, it’s taking a chance,” Dounoulis said. “It just makes sense when there are designated crosswalks to use.”

Students tackling storm drain pollution with spray-paint campaign

Fourth and fifth grade students from Middle Township painted storm drains with staff from the Bayshore Center at Bivalve as part of a STEM residency project they have been involved in over the last 8 weeks. The students are part of the Concerned Citizens' Homework Club and the paintings will remind residents that storm water pollution begins at the drain on streets. May 1, 2019 (Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer)

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — You may see the blue, spray-painted messages while driving along South Jersey’s coastal communities: “No Dumping.”

It’s not environmental vigilantes who are spreading the word about protecting the waterways.

It’s local students.

“It’s about how we have to save the ocean by not littering and by doing the right thing,” said fifth-grade student Mileydi Valentin.

As rain threatened in the skies above, Valentin and her classmates from Middle Township’s Concerned Citizens Homework Club huddled around the storm drains Wednesday on Main Street in the Whitesboro section of the township using a stencil to paint their message.

The students continued up and down Main Street, the culmination of an eight-week STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — residency by the Bayshore Center at Bivalve, a water conservancy group in Commercial Township, Cumberland County.

Other local schools in areas adjacent to waterways are also getting students involved in raising awareness of the consequences of dumping pollutants into local storm drains.

Recently, Margate students participated in a similar citywide storm drain painting and educational project titled “Only Rain Down The Drain!” last month that involved many city organizations.

Ali Place, education coordinator for Bayshore Center, said the organization had never worked with the fourth- and fifth-grade students from Middle Township before but were excited to spread the message in Cape May County, one of the state’s most environmentally sensitive locations.

“We do a lot of programming with this age group. We operate the A.J. Meerwald, we do a lot of education programs primarily for fourth and fifth grade on the boat,” Place said. “That’s a great age group because they’re open to learning, they’re excited to learn about it, and they’re ready to make a difference in the world.”

Place has been visiting with the Middle Township students at the school every week about different STEM topics. The residency was themed, “Water? What About Water?,” and the students studied what lives in the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean, the health of the waterways and why storm drains are important to the watershed.

“We’ve done watersheds, we’ve learned about oysters, we’ve done an oyster dissection, looked at plankton,” she said. “A few of the students were somewhat familiar, but most of them it was new material for them. It all builds on itself.”

Elementary school teacher Pam Shute, supervisor for Homework Club, said that students are exposed to a variety of different topics in the afterschool program, which serves about 70 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. The Homework Club, sponsored by the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro began in 2007 and has been at the school district for the last nine years.

Shute said that in addition to helping students with homework and providing dinner, the club brings in many different activities in for the kids like the Stealth Learning program last year, or more recently a boxing program.

“We’re constantly trying to find ways to make it a more enriching experience,” she said.

The students have been pretty interested in what they have been learning about through the Bayshore program, Shute said.

“And the students learn about keeping the environment clean in school, so this is a more in-depth study on it,” she said.

Local 54 election pits familiar foes against each other

ATLANTIC CITY — More than 10,000 casino and hospitality employees will have the opportunity Friday to vote for union leadership, and the choice is between two familiar tickets.

Bob McDevitt, president of UNITE HERE Local 54 since 1996, is being challenged by Al Tabei for control of the labor union that represents nearly one-third of casino workers in Atlantic City.

The two men have squared off in four previous union elections, the most recent in 2016, and there is no love lost between them.

McDevitt, 57, characterized Tabei as an opportunist who has not participated in union activities, including the 2016 workers’ strike that lead to the eventual closing of the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.

“This man, in 15 years of running, has never done anything to support any fight that we’ve had in the union, up to and including the Taj Mahal strike,” McDevitt said of his challenger. “He’s nonexistent.”

Tabei, 67, contends that McDevitt has done little to improve the quality of employment for union members, pointing to a reduction in the number of full-time jobs, health benefits and pension security.

“Twenty-five years is too many years for anyone to be president of the union,” said Tabei. “We believe the time is here to put a stop to that.”

Underlining the verbal sparring between the two candidates is an industry that saw total gaming revenue cut in half over the course of a decade, the number of casino properties reduced and employment numbers shrink.

McDevitt said the past 10 years has been spent “responding to that and trying to meet the needs of the members while dealing with an industry that was imploding.”

Tabei said Local 54’s leadership has failed to adequately represent members through the difficult times and was, instead, more concerned with “advancing personal agendas.”

“For the past 25 years, under Bob McDevitt’s leadership, apart from setting the members back 30 years by giving away nearly 80 percent of what we used to have, the union has been standing by, doing nothing, while the companies have violated the collective bargaining agreement,” said Tabei. “The sense is that it is absolutely time for change.”

In the last three years, total gaming has started to increase, two new casino properties opened and, for the first time in almost five years, the industry is employing more than 30,000 people.

“Working in the capacity of serving the members here is a real honor for me,” said McDevitt. “And, having gone through the decade of terrible times, it’s really exciting to start thinking about growth and prosperity again.”

McDevitt is running at the top of the ticket with the union’s current Vice President Javier Soto and Secretary-Treasurer Donna DeCaprio. Tabei is running with Laurie Benninghoven as a vice presidential candidate and Frank Viering as secretary-treasurer.

The timing of this year’s election is important for the casino workers’ union since the industry’s collective bargaining agreement is set to be renegotiated next year for all nine of the Atlantic City casino properties.

Although workers at Ocean Casino Resort have not yet voted to become Local 54 members, the expectation is that they will before the 2020 industry-wide bargaining begins.

Employees of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City — which opened at the site of the shuttered Taj Mahal in June 2018 — recently voted in favor of unionizing.

Voting is open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. at the Atlantic City Convention Center on May 10.

Atlantic City's new housing development exceeding expectations

ATLANTIC CITY — Juan Pemberti began his law enforcement career in Atlantic City as a Class II Special Officer.

Although he no longer patrols the resort’s Tourism District, the 27-year-old and his wife, Angela Dominguez, 28, recently moved back into Atlantic City.

The couple found exactly what they wanted in 600 NoBe, the city’s first market-rate housing development in nearly a half-century.

“When I tell a friend that I’m living here I always describe it as something you really don’t find anywhere else in this area. I always describe it as an all-in-one place, almost like a resort,” Pemberti said. “It gives a modern-living feeling, like a New York City-style, but in Atlantic City. You don’t see this anywhere else in the city, especially at such an affordable price.”

The 250-unit luxury development opened at the beginning of 2019 and has already exceeded expectations of those behind the project. Management said leases are being signed quicker than anticipated and 600 NoBe, short for North Beach, has attracted both white- and blue-collar professionals.

“We have doctors, police officers, restaurant owners and casino workers all moving in or already living here,” said Maritza Busch, director of leasing. “We thought it would take 18 months or so to reach our goals, but in less than eight months, we’re already close.”

When Boraie Development LLC first proposed constructing an $85 million market-rate housing project in the South Inlet, there were plenty of skeptics. Pauline’s Prairie — a moniker given by locals to the area that former city housing authority director Pauline Hill aggressively demolished in hopes of spurring urban renewal — has enticed its fair share of eager developers over the last half-century, but nothing ever really panned out.

Check out the inside of the 600 North Beach apartments in Atlantic City

The neighborhood, which sits in the shadow of the $2.4 billion Ocean Casino Resort, is scarred from the prior failed attempts at urban revitalization. Among the empty plots of beach-block land, random homes and a handful of resilient businesses dot the landscape.

On a typical day, there are often more plastic bags floating on the wind through the Prairie than people walking the streets.

The neighborhood’s aesthetics did not deter Gregory Nelson from moving to 600 NoBe. Nelson, a 51-year-old plumber and HVAC technician at Resorts Casino Hotel, found the development by happenstance driving around the city, lured in by an advertisement on the street corner.

“It feels like they’re building the (area) up,” he said. “I know people who lived in this area 10 years ago and they told me ‘Don’t do it.’ But, it feels like a place I can walk around and feel comfortable. It seems like they did a lot with Atlantic City to make it a little more comfortable.”

Nelson left his home in Sicklerville to be closer to work. He said that despite warnings from his friends, he found the neighborhood to be safe.

“I (was) happy to find this place because, when I looked around, this was probably the best place in Atlantic City that I’ve seen,” he said.

Tina Maruca sold her four-bedroom home in Absecon to relocate to Atlantic City. The 59-year old school administrator said she wanted to downsize after her children moved out.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to be in New Jersey for at least another two years, so what better place to be than right by the shore?’” Maruca said.

Maruca also downplayed any safety concerns about living in Atlantic City because she does not “go out at night and walk around by myself.”

She does, however, regularly walk the Boardwalk for exercise. She often takes her stroll with a friend but occasionally goes alone.

“I’m familiar with this area (so) I wasn’t apprehensive,” she said. “Living here, I’m not (concerned about safety).”

Courtney Burgess, 48, was among the first tenants to move into 600 NoBe when he arrived in January. The music producer said he had only been to Atlantic City “once or twice” in the 1990s before deciding to make the beach resort his new home. Lured by the proximity to the ocean, Burgess said his decision was sealed when he saw the retail options at Tanger Outlets The Walk.

“I’m looking forward to being here when the summer comes,” Burgess said. “I made a great decision. If I had to do it again, I (would).”

Pemberti and Dominguez said 600 NoBe is where they want to be until they can afford to purchase a home of their own. Until then, the couple said they are proud to be contributing to Atlantic City’s revitalization.

“The more people that move in, the more they’re going to contribute to the city’s success,” Pemberti said. “I love the city. I want to see it prosper.”

Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer