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Cape May businesses notice shutdown's trickle-down effects

CAPE MAY — Coast Guard personnel are set to miss a second paycheck as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history continues, and the economic impact has trickled down to businesses and the employees that staff them.

Kevin Alexander, 21, is a lifelong resident of Cape May and a server at Delaney’s Irish Pub & Grill on Washington Street. Since the shutdown, fewer families are patronizing the restaurant after the near-weekly Friday graduations on base.

And he has lost shifts as a result.

“It’s been a whole lot less busy,” Alexander said. “This time of the year’s already pretty rough. But it’s definitely hurt.”

General Manager Ed Nielsen, 55, said the difference is night and day. He’s used to seeing eight or 10 tables filled on Fridays, with five or so servers on the clock.

One family came in after last Friday’s graduation, he said, and he cut his staff to two.

“We count on it. I staff extra for Fridays because of that, but I’ve cut that staff down as well,” Nielsen said. “We can feel it. It’s there. It’s obvious.”

Because it is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, and not the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard is the only military branch not receiving federal funds during the shutdown stemming from a budget impasse over funding for a wall along the border with Mexico.

In Cape May, that means the roughly 1,000 enlistees, civilian employees and contractors who work at Training Center Cape May have missed one paycheck and are set to miss another. They make up about a third of the city’s population of about 3,480 residents, and some businesses say they’ve felt the effect of their going without pay.

A food pantry on base, organized by the Spouses Association and the Chief Petty Officers Association, and stocked by concerned residents across South Jersey, has functioned as a stopgap measure since shortly after the shutdown, allowing personnel and their families to forget one of their pressing expenses.

Their struggle is not going unnoticed.

Gov. Phil Murphy paid a visit to the base Thursday morning, meeting with commanding officers and dropping a donation at the food pantry with his wife.

Murphy said he’s considering all options he may have to get funds to Coast Guard personnel, he said in a media briefing outside the base’s gates. But his options may be limited to simply urging President Donald Trump to end the shutdown immediately or requesting he extend emergency funds to the Coast Guard and other federal employees, something he has joined with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to do.

“These people are in a real financial vice, and yet they go in and serve our country every day regardless of the morale, regardless of the challenges, and it’s a real testament to the strength of the Coast Guard and to the members and families that serve in our military across the board,” Murphy said.

Murphy has taken note of the response from the community.

“The Cape May community has been extraordinary, the character they’re showing is extraordinary,” he said. “When you’re down, you never forget the folks who were there for you when you’re down, and this community has risen up in a big way.”

Atlantic County, home to a Coast Guard station in Atlantic City and an air station in Egg Harbor Township, has taken a hit, too, according to Jim Kennedy, a former CRDA executive director and local economic analyst.

“In Atlantic County 2500 Federal Civil Employees added $436 million [GDP] to the regional economy in 2016,” Kennedy tweeted Tuesday. “The Federal Government Closing has disrupted this flow of funds.”

Fed-up furloughed workers in Egg Harbor Township will gather late Friday morning at two businesses on the airport circle for a rally organized by four unions representing federal workers in the area. The FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center, which employs about 1,420 people all either furloughed or working without pay during the shutdown, sits just up the road.

Meanwhile, back in Cape May, the Ugly Mug, a short walk from Delaney’s, increased its normal 25 percent discount for Coast Guard families to 50 percent during the shutdown. They’ve noticed more families coming in.

“It’s a Coast Guard town,” said bartender Will Piacentine. “Most of the population here during the wintertime is Coast Guard members. So we like to give back to them.”

In neighboring Lower Township, some say the effects of their neighbors losing income have been obvious.

Two weeks ago, business at Villas Diner and Pizzeria dropped off, said server Anita Faulkner, 61.

Was it related to the shutdown? “I hope so,” she said, laughing.

“We’re not seeing as many as usual,” said server Bridget Guinan, 56. “I would think (the shutdown) would have something to do with it.”

At Delaney’s, Nielsen said they aren’t alone in losing business. Shop owners and clerks from nearby come in for lunch, he said, and many have discussed seeing fewer patrons.

“Absolutely business is down,” Nielsen said. “It’s a ripple effect. Everyone talks about it, and we feel it here as well.”

Charles J. Olson / for the press  

Don Fauerbach, director of exotic car garage sales at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, and Courtney Keenan, director of marketing and communications for the park, tour one of the garages, which the park has had since 2011. They expect to break ground on more this year.

At New Jersey Motorsports Park, the future isn't all racing

MILLVILLE — The New Jersey Motorsports Park was cold and quiet this week, its track empty, as planes overhead flew low in approach to nearby Millville Executive Airport.

In the midst of new developments here, it almost seems like the 500-acre space is trying to outgrow a childhood nickname.

Two months out from the opening of the 2019 season, the staff is busy finalizing projects and scheduling events — some of which have nothing to do with racing.

Three years after its opening in 2008, the park reorganized its debt as part of its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

“Ever since that day, we wanted to be that complete entertainment facility and be diverse,” said Brad Scott, the park’s president and chief operating officer. “It’s a big part of the financial stability, and just the overall operations of the track.”

That has meant adding popular amenities to attract corporate retreats and other group outings — in 2012 they added paintball; this year, ax throwing and updated go-kart offerings. At the same time, the park has doubled down on efforts to keep visitors for whom racing is a part of their lifestyle.

GALLERY: Exotic Car Garages at New Jersey Motorsports Park

Since 2011, the park has sold on-site “exotic car garages,” between 1,000 and 1,500 square feet, to car aficionados. They come with loft spaces that, depending on the owner’s preferences, feature kitchenettes, bathrooms and living areas. Many of the lofts open up onto balconies overlooking the 2.5-mile Thunderbolt Raceway, named after the iconic Republic P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter jet that took off nearby during World War II.

Leadership at the park hopes to break ground on a fourth phase of garages soon.

“Very soon, once the weather breaks,” said Courtney Keenan, a spokeswoman for the park.

Construction should be completed by the end of the year, with three more phases in the works.

“It’s like a community within itself,” said Lee Brahin, the park’s managing partner. “People can store collectible and race cars at the facility. They’re all like-minded individuals.”

To Scott, the park was ahead of the curve in welcoming car collectors to own a piece of track-side real estate.

“You’re seeing these condominiums, these exotic car garages, pop up at other racetrack locations across the country. There is a growing demand,” Scott said. “You surround yourself with similar people who have a passion for the industry and passion for their vehicles.”

That may be an increasingly exclusive club. The number of groups renting or holding events at the track was up in 2018, Scott said. But paid attendance at events dropped last year — about 5 percent or 6 percent, they say — something Scott blames on 2018 being the rainiest year on record.

Leadership wants to establish the park as an all-around attraction and event space for the region.

This year, the event schedule includes a terrain race, a blood drive, Millville’s Fireworks and Food Truck Festival, cycling races, sports car and motorcycle races, and monster truck events — visitors to which will have a newly renovated Finish Line Pub to end their visit at. On Tuesday, construction workers were busy implementing an open floor plan and expanded bar area.

Events are scheduled through mid-September.

“NJMP is unique because we are versatile, and we are thrilled to provide a wide variety of on- and off-track events to our fans in 2019,” Scott said in a recent release.

Brahin said racing is still their focus. The park was voted one of the best racetracks in the country by Road & Track magazine last year. The diverse attractions at the park serve to draw visitors to the main event.

“One, it produces alternative revenue streams,” Brahin said. “And two, it brings people to the park that might not otherwise get there, and that way they can experience racing and everything that goes on.”

Mayor Michael Santiago applauded the new developments, saying the park has been a great partner to the city.

“When races are going on … you meet these people from all over the East Coast, whether it’s from Connecticut, New York City, Pennsylvania, that come in and use our facilities, our restaurants, and things like that,” Santiago said. “I think they’ve been great neighbors.”

Ex-Hammonton guidance supervisor moves forward after lewdness charges dismissed

HAMMONTON — A guidance supervisor who lost his job after a lewdness charge is fighting to get his job and his reputation back after prosecutors dropped the charges, which were based on the testimony of an officer since-fired for lying.

For three years, Michael Ryan and his wife, Nadine, fought a lewdness charge that cost him, a former Hammonton school district guidance supervisor, his career.

In November, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office declined to pursue a new trial, the charge was dismissed and the family is starting to work toward receiving reparations and being a catalyst for change.

“We were guilty until proven innocent,” Nadine Ryan said Tuesday. “Once it was a police officer who signed the complaint, we were guilty having to prove our innocence.”

“The damage done to our family emotionally and financially is irreparable,” said Ryan, 53. “Of course, it’s nice to be vindicated. However, restoration is the next step.”

Earlier this month, the couple filed a tort claim notice against the Eastampton Township Police Department and the officer who signed the complaint, Michael Musser.

Eastampton police Chief Joseph Iacovitti did not return a request for comment.

Musser, who was terminated from the department after the internal affairs investigation, was adamant Thursday he didn’t falsify any reports or misidentify Ryan.

“I saw him,” he said during a phone interview. “I can identify him. I’m not going to wrongly accuse someone of doing something that they weren’t doing.”

Musser said he is appealing his termination and he plans to fight Ryan in court if a lawsuit is brought against him.

“I’m a fair, straight shooter,” he said, explaining he has 18 years of law-enforcement experience. “I’m going to have to stick up for myself.”

Ryan has also communicated with the school district about getting his job back.

Hammonton school board President Sam Mento said he is happy Ryan’s charges were dismissed and that the board authorized Solicitor William Donio “to begin a dialogue with Mr. Ryan’s attorney.”

Donio did not return a request for comment.

The tort notice, dated Jan. 8, cites the false report filed by Musser claiming Ryan was seen masturbating in the parking lot of South Jersey Laundry on Sept. 11, 2015.

As a result of the complaint, Ryan was charged with lewdness, a disorderly persons offense, and found guilty in Absecon Municipal Court. He was sentenced to one year of probation and $664 in fines.

“They thought I’d just pay my $664 and serve my one year of probation and go away,” Ryan said, shaking his head.

“I was told by law enforcement in Hammonton that (Musser) was a trained police officer and had in-depth training and there was no way that he got it wrong and I was a wife in denial,” Nadine Ryan said.

But the Ryans continued to fight.

In May 2017, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Donna A. Taylor denied an appeal, and her decision named Musser as the officer who signed the complaint.

Then, Nadine got a phone call from a friend — whose identity she has never disclosed, not even to the family’s lawyer — saying she should look into an allegation that Musser was under an internal affairs investigation.

“That’s when things turned around for us,” Ryan said.

Musser was under investigation for lying on the job during the time of Ryan’s trial, a fact that was not disclosed to the defense, violating Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 Supreme Court decision that requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory, or potentially exonerating, evidence to the defense, according to court records.

In a letter sent to Absecon Municipal Court Judge John H. Rosenberger on Nov. 30, Assistant Prosecutor Kathleen E. Robinson said, “The state has declined to continue the prosecution of defendant Ryan.”

Although the charge was ultimately dismissed, the process left a lasting impression on the family.

“I expected there to be a level of excitement, of celebration, but we were flat,” Nadine said of the dismissal. “To this day, we are still processing. We’re happy, but the justice system failed us.”

She added that their children, a daughter and a son, who were 12 and 10 at the time of the incident, have learned from the experience.

“They now learned to question,” she said. “What I’m thankful for is that they still trust our law enforcement but they don’t take anything for granted.”

Ryan, who was suspended from his position at the Hammonton school district when he was charged and terminated after being convicted, said it’s been difficult dealing with the loss of income after building a 29-year career in the district.

As part of moving forward, the couple wants to spread their story so others who are going through a similar situation can have hope.

“What we’re saying is, what happens to people that don’t have resources or a means to get a good attorney?” Nadine asked. “The damages that we incurred are irreparable. How can we sit by and let this (justice) system continue?”

While he’s pleased with the final outcome of his case, Michael said, he’s disappointed his family was traumatized for three years to reach a dismissal that should have happened within the first few days.

“Life as I knew it does not exist anymore,” Ryan said. “But I’m looking forward to a day when I can look back and say we have healed, recovered and it is behind us now.”

Charles J. Olson 

Bill Knapp, maintenance supervisor at the motorsports park, walks past ax-throwing booths under construction behind the park’s clubhouse.

N.J. Attorney General: We fell short on tracking police use of force

BRIDGETON — The state “fell short” on its responsibility to track police use-of-force incidents, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said Wednesday night during a listening session in the basement of Union Baptist Temple.

“We should be doing the type of analysis that the newspapers did for us — highlighting trends and outliers and highlighting those individuals that engage in use of force at a higher rate than others,” Grewal said. “We fell short on our responsibility in that regard for the last 17 years.”

The town-hall style meeting came two months after NJ Advance Media published “The Force Report,” a database that ranks every police department in the state by the number of times they used compliance holds, takedowns, hands/fists, leg or baton strikes, pepper spray or fired a weapon from 2012 to 2016. Within a week after the report was published, Grewal announced his intention to create a system that tracks use-of-force incidents.

Grewal, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae and other officials fielded questions and comments from community members about plans to create more transparency and accountability regarding police use of force.

Bridgeton was the first stop on a tour around the state, but additional dates have not been scheduled.

Webb-McRae said that in addition to tracking use-of-force incidents, the tool should track those incidents by race, so officials can understand why people of color are more likely to be involved in an incident where force is utilized.

She said the revision of the state’s use-of-force policy in 2000, which mandated officers to report every incident, was only a first step.

“We need a tool that mines out data, tells us what officers use force at a higher rate in comparison to other officers in a department,” she said. “And we need a tool that tells us which departments use force at a rate higher than their counterparts.”

Walter L. Hudson Sr., chairman of the National Awareness Alliance, asked about sustained reform and police accountability, adding he wants local prosecutors out of investigations into police-involved shootings.

“How can a fox investigate another fox over a chicken killing?” he asked, bringing up a bill that would centralize all police-involved shooting investigations at the state level.

The bill was passed by both houses, state Senate and Assembly on Dec. 17 and is waiting for either a veto or a signature from Gov. Phil Murphy.

“That is a bill, that, in my estimation, upends a system that delivers everything the bill promises and more,” Grewal said. “The current system that we have in place now assures that, if there’s an officer-involved shooting, whether it’s fatal or non-fatal, that the county prosecutor responds.”

He added the current system allows an immediate response to the scene and the first few minutes and hours are critical. In the current proposal, the state has to respond, which could take hours while evidence, witnesses and video disappears.

While questions and comments regarding active cases were off limits during the session, defense attorney Al Wheeler asked about the investigation into the death of 19-year-old Jacob Servais, who was fatally shot in November by a Cape May County Prosecutor’s detective in Vineland during an investigation into a violent crime.

Grewal said the Attorney General’s Office is investigating.

There have been other high-profile use-of-force incidents over the past year in Cumberland County. In July, Rashaun Washington, 37, of Camden, was fatally shot by Vineland police after he threatened to trigger an explosive device that would kill himself and several officers. And earlier this month, Webb-McRae announced an investigation into an officer from the Vineland Police Department after a call to a local hospital left a Millville man in critical condition.

Steven Young, of Atlantic City, said there is no trust or accountability between officials and residents from the state down.

“We have a serious problem when it comes to trust,” Young said. “How can you ask a young man to trust a police officer?”

Grewal replied that trust, transparency and accountability are the goals, and that the state has even gone so far as to attempt to buy the data from NJ Advance Media.

“The press had a 17-month head start on us in this project,” Grewal said. “We had 17 years where we did not utilize this data the right way. My commitment is that we are looking at this data, we are going to utilize it. Moving forward, we are going to create a new system.”

mbilinski-pressofac / MOLLY BILINSKI/Staff Writer  

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy, has said a new law requiring his office to investigate fatal police-involved shootings will create a risk of slower investigations and may send a message that county prosecutors cannot be trusted to handle these types of cases impartially.