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Edward Lea 

Michael D. McGrath Longport Memorial Lifeguard Races Friday July 5, 2019. Edward Lea Staff Photographer / Press of Atlantic City

With JCPenney's closing, Hamilton Mall looks to the future

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Everything was for sale at cut-rate prices Thursday at the JCPenney in the Hamilton Mall. Every article of clothing cost $3, and mannequins were 50% off whatever mannequins typically go for.

As workers prepared for their last day Friday, “Everything must go” signs hung throughout the mostly barren department store.

Marc Catona, 57, of Port Republic, came in for the sale and got a few things, including a ladder.

“I’d rather be paying full price and keep these people with their jobs,” Catona said. “Really, I hate seeing stores close. We need people with jobs.”

Employees on Thursday directed requests for comment to management.

JCPenney in February announced it would close 18 stores, of which the Hamilton Mall location is one, after a weak holiday sales season.

Employees affected by the closings will receive separation benefits, including help finding other jobs, resume writing and interview preparation, according to a statement issued by the company at the time the closings were announced.

The closing of Sears in November and JCPenney this week leaves Macy’s as the only remaining anchor store at the Hamilton Mall, which has, like many malls, fallen victim to the increasing prevalence of online shopping. Open since 1987, the mall has had an incredibly rough past few years, its value dropping from $90.78 million in 2017 to $50 million this year, according to the township Tax Assessor’s Office.

However, even with another anchor store leaving, the mall is doing well, said Crystal Rodriguez, the mall’s marketing manager.

“Macy’s is doing phenomenal; they’re definitely not going anywhere,” Rodriguez said Friday. “We have a ton of events lined up for the summer.”

She said the fourth annual Hamilton Mall’s Got Talent competition is coming up, as well as the Police Department’s National Night Out carnival-style event, adding that “even with these big anchors leaving, we still have a ton going on.”

The largest mall in Atlantic and Cape May counties now has plenty of ground to make up as outlets and outdoor shopping malls crop up in the area.

However, the future occupants of JCPenney are out of the mall’s control, Rodriguez said, adding the retailer is in charge of finding a buyer for the building.

Even as some shoppers mourned the end of one of their go-to stores — placing blame on big-box stores like Walmart and online retailers — the deals proved irresistible.

Holly Mignogna, 59, of Galloway Township, walked through JCPenney on Thursday with an armful of clothes.

“I’m kind of sad,” said Mignogna, “kind of sad and upset because I used to shop here a lot.”

She hopes it doesn’t spell doom for the mall.

“I’ve been coming here a long time, so I hope not,” Mignogna said.

In one corner, past the myriad signs announcing the store’s imminent closing, yellow caution tape was crisscrossed over one of the store’s dressing room entrances and the remaining clothes for sale were mostly in the men’s section.

Whitney Benedetto, 33, of Somers Point, was shopping with her husband, Brad, and their two kids Thursday and had about two racks’ worth of clothes to try on.

“We shopped here all the time,” Benedetto said, adding she is worried what the future has in store for the mall of her childhood.

“The (food court) has half as many places as it used to have when I was a kid,” she said. “And now anchor stores (are) going. The new stores, H&M and whatnot, their contracts will run out eventually.”

The Associated Press and Staff Writer Molly Bilinski contributed to this report.

Ducktown's spiffing up, and people are noticing

ATLANTIC CITY — The owner of CityWide Towing in Ducktown spent the past year repainting his building, installing a new awning and volunteering his exterior wall for a 48 Blocks mural.

“It’s all part of the effort. You’ve got to keep up with everybody,” said Rafael Maldonado, 45, of Egg Harbor Township. “You can’t be the ugly one on the block.”

For about a year, there has been a concerted effort to clean up the neighborhood by harnessing the help of volunteers, city workers, residents and business owners.

It’s paying off, Maldonado said, and he is glad to be part of it.

The Ducktown neighborhood, which stretches several blocks from Missouri Avenue to Texas Avenue, was historically an Italian-American neighborhood. Iconic establishments like White House Sub Shop, Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern (once a favorite of late baseball great Joe DiMaggio), Formica Bros. Bakery and Dock’s Oyster House are there, as well as historic Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

But after World War II, many of the old families moved to the mainland, and for decades it fell on hard times, losing population and that feeling of community.

Now, it is diverse, with many Hispanic and Asian families living there, Census data show.

And new notable entities have moved there, such as shopping destination Tanger Outlets The Walk and cultural destinations such as Dante Hall and the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University.

Ducktown Neighborhood Revitalization Plan

City officials and groups of volunteers are working hard to help the neighborhood create its own updated identity and attract more customers to its many businesses and restaurants while improving the quality of life for residents.

In May, the city Planning Board voted to incorporate the recently completed Ducktown Neighborhood Revitalization Plan into the city’s master plan, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority is considering revising zoning there, since it is in the Tourism District. CRDA’s Special Improvement District has also installed more trash and recycling receptacles there.

Plans are to promote the livability of the neighborhood and its legacy, while supporting a varied commercial base and making the community more sustainable in the face of natural hazards, particularly floods. Safety and quality-of-life improvements play a central role in the plan.

The plan opens the door for new funding and incentives to spur economic growth in the area, according to city officials and plan author Jim Rutala.

A lot has happened since May, Rutala said, including an application to create a 501c3 Community Development Corporation to focus on implementing the plan. The first Ducktown Summer Festival of music and entertainment started Friday, and the city has secured a grant to pave Fairmount Avenue between Missouri and Mississippi avenues, one of the plan’s priorities.

Maldonado isn’t finished making improvements to his building on Fairmount Avenue between North Georgia and North Florida avenues, he said. He will soon install new neon lights, change an exterior gate and install new doors.

The neighborhood is definitely on the way up, said Tina Leeds, 38, who grew up in Port Republic and moved to Italy Terrace almost a year ago from Philadelphia.

A friend of Leeds who is a homeowner in Ducktown told junkies used to hang out on Italy Terrace, a small alleyway of homes off of Mississippi Avenue.

“They were able to clear it out,” Leeds said.

She came back to help care for an aging grandfather, she said, and commutes to Philadelphia for bartending and other jobs.

Although she lives near enough to the train to walk to it, she does not commute with it. She comes home from work too late, after the trains stop running, she said. So she drives.

But Ducktown’s proximity to the train station may pay off if Atlantic City gets the Transit Village designation it is seeking from the state. That would open up other sources of funding for development and improvements within a half mile of the train station, which would encompass most of Ducktown.

New businesses are opening. There are large new planters filled with flowers on Arctic Avenue in front of the future home of Setaara, which bills itself as Atlantic City’s first restaurant to offer Afghan cuisine.

Setaara got a state Economic Development Authority business incentive grant, Rutala said.

Seventeen-year-old Nayeli Villa has lived in Atlantic City all her life, and in Ducktown about six years, she said.

Atlantic City Ducktown 2018 map

She has seen a difference in the past year.

“Before where we have empty places — abandoned homes — it would always fill up with trash,” said Villa. “Alleyways would fill up with trash.”

Now, problem sites are addressed before it’s allowed to build up, she said.

There are plenty of improvements left to make. Walking around the neighborhood, there was still litter — albeit in smaller amounts than before — and in some areas new brick curbscaping had come apart, creating deep holes that could easily cause someone to break an ankle.

Maldonado’s one complaint about the neighborhood is really about how Mother Nature treats it. It floods quickly every time it rains heavily, he said, even for a short amount of time.

On Thursday, the water line from Wednesday’s flood was still visible on the storefronts.

“We park our big truck out front to stop the waves from hitting the building,” Maldonado said.

Leeds said much of the appeal of living in Ducktown is being able to walk to the beach and to run errands.

“I get coffee here every morning,” she said of Formica Bros., as she tied her dog Skeeter to a lamp post out front.

“I only wish they would let him in,” she said, nodding to Skeeter, who waited patiently on the sidewalk.

View more photos of Ducktown

Stockton Atlantic City gets its first EOF students, and many are locals

ATLANTIC CITY — In matching T-shirts, Justus Taylor and her mother, Natasha, wheeled luggage along Atlantic Avenue, up a wooden ramp and into the residential complex at Stockton University last week.

“She’s following her mom’s footsteps,” said Natasha Taylor, of Atlantic City, a 1991 Stockton graduate.

Not only would they have the same alma mater, but the elder Taylor was an Educational Opportunity Fund student. Now, her daughter would also participate in the program.

The EOF provides financial assistance and support services, including counseling, tutoring and developmental course work, to students from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds who attend institutions of higher education in New Jersey. Each year, about 13,000 New Jersey students participate in the program. Last year, the EOF celebrated its 50th year.

The younger Taylor, a 2019 Atlantic City High School graduate, is part of the first group of EOF students to live at Stockton’s city campus, which opened in fall 2018.

This year’s program in Atlantic City specifically targeted local students like Taylor, as well as her former Atlantic City High School classmates, Christian Cabrera and Hassam Kaleem, who also moved in June 29.

In total, 50 students will participate in the one-month summer academy program in Atlantic City.

In addition to Atlantic City, Stockton’s EOF program has about 350 students enrolled at the main Galloway campus.

Stockton alumnus and EOF staff member Abdullah Bukhari, 23, of Ventnor, said the academy gives the students a head start on college.

They move into the dorms and spend a month getting to know the campus, making friends and receiving educational support to prepare them for their first semester and their future careers.

This year, the students also get a chance to live beachside in Stockton’s Boardwalk-facing dormitory.

“It’s fantastic. You never get to see this pretty much anywhere else,” said Bukhari, a 2014 Atlantic City High School graduate.

For the Atlantic City students, Bukhari said it’s beneficial to have their families nearby for support. For those who are traveling from farther away, the EOF students and staff become family, he said.

Kathleen Villatta, 17, of Newark, was setting up her dorm room with her parents last Saturday morning.

“It’s fun. I’m excited,” said Villatta as she unpacked a pink backpack. “I really wanted Atlantic City, and I’m really thankful I got it. I’m just looking forward to the experience as a whole and starting a new chapter in my life in a different setting.”

Atlantic City firefighters save 3 in water rescues with help from drone, bystander

ATLANTIC CITY — In separate water rescues over the past two days, firefighters used a drone to save two kayakers stranded in a marsh at low tide and a good Samaritan braved an ocean rip current to keep a Philadelphia man afloat while waiting for rescue.

About 4 p.m. Wednesday, firefighters responded to a call that two children were stuck in the marsh between the resort and Ventnor, fire Chief Scott Evans said. While the department’s Rescue Company prepared water rescue boats and stretchers, its Training Division flew a drone over the area.

“With the drone, we were able to quickly identify that they weren’t kids,” Evans said, adding it was the first time the department has used the drone. “They were women and they had covered themselves in mud to stop the green heads from biting them.”

Atlantic City fire displaces five

ATLANTIC CITY — A family was routed from their home Thursday afternoon after a fire that started in an upstairs bedroom caused smoke damage throughout the residence.

The unidentified women, ages 72 and 74, both of Ventnor, were dehydrated and had visible signs of heat exhaustion when they were pulled from the marsh by firefighters, he said. They were treated at the scene and released.

The women were kayaking in the bay by Newton Avenue and decided to paddle down a creek that flows through the marsh, Evans said. But the tide went out faster than they could turn around.

“Their kayak got stuck and they couldn’t get out, so they decided to get out and walk out,” he said. “Then they realized they can’t walk in that stuff.”

State and Ventnor police also responded.

The next day, a local man helped save a swimmer who got stuck in a current far from the shore, Evans said.

About 8 p.m., firefighters responded to the beach at Caspian Avenue for a report of a man drowning and another man who went into the water to help him, Evans said. The beach was crowded with about 200 people there to watch the Fourth of July fireworks, and lifeguards were no longer on duty.

Justin Freeman swam out into the waves to try to help the man, who was in his mid-40s but not identified by fire officials.

“I live out there, so I know how that current gets,” said Freeman, 34, of Atlantic City. “I saw the guy, and it looked like he was struggling.”

Heat, warm water and breaks in the sandbar all contribute to the risk for rip currents, according to the National Weather Service. Between 1998 and the end of September 2017, there were 47 rip-current fatalities in the weather service’s Mount Holly coverage area, which includes Atlantic and Cape May counties.

The first time Freeman went to help, the man waved him off, telling Freeman he was fine, he said. Then Freeman saw the man’s son on the beach, who said his dad needed help.

“I grabbed the boogie board and swam out to the guy,” Freeman said, “and got him afloat and tried to get him to the jetty.”

By the time the pair got close to the jetty, firefighters had arrived at the beach. Others on the beach tried to help, tying beach towels together to form a rope to pull the two men in, Freeman said, while others watched and about 60 people recorded the incident on cellphones.

Evans said the man was swimming about 75 yards from the beach and rescue swimmer and firefighter Richard Dicioccio and firefighter Patrick Cooke brought him back on a rescue board.

“We got to give a lot of credit to (Freeman),” Evans said. “The guy might not be alive today if the bystander hadn’t kept him afloat with his boogie board until we could get there.”

The man was taken to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, for treatment.

“It’s really just, know your limits. You have to pay attention to the water,” Freeman said. “To me, it was letting people know that there are still good people out here and hopefully people watching saw and they won’t hesitate to help people next time.”

The Coast Guard also responded.