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Atlantic City fighting blight one building at a time

ATLANTIC CITY — Pastor Raymond Hollis Jr. and his wife, Shonda, inherited the blighted property on North Connecticut Avenue after his father passed away in 2011.

Severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the corner lot in Bungalow Park fell into a state of disrepair that Hollis was unaware of while living in North Carolina.

Notices of code violations and requirements to abate issued by the city went unanswered because the mail was being delivered to the vacant property, rather than the owners themselves.

On Monday morning, Hollis and his wife appeared before a hearing board consisting of code enforcement, construction and inspection officials to determine the fate of the property.

The city periodically holds such hearings to allow property owners a chance to make necessary arrangements to fix, or demolish, the building.

The Hollises were one of two property owners — a third was contacted via phone due to the owner’s poor health — who sat down with the board after being issued notices last month to either present the city with a plan to fix their buildings or have the structures subject to demolition.

GALLERY: Atlantic City properties up for possible demolition

According to public notices, 11 property owners were asked to appear or present their plans to the board. Eight of the properties were discussed Monday.

Atlantic City code enforcement officials have identified the Hollises’ property at 302 N. Connecticut Ave. as one in need of rehabilitation or demolition and are moving forward with plans to address the vacant property.

It is one of nearly 500 properties in the city that officials have included on a constantly-evolving list of abandoned or vacant structures that need attention.

For city officials, the process is a delicate balance of respecting the rights of property owners, while also doing what is in the resort’s best interest. The hearings are essentially a negotiation and the conclusions are nonbinding, but the process allows for communication between the parties, which city officials say is all too often lacking when it comes to vacant and neglected properties.

Dale Finch, director of the city’s licensing and inspection department, said there is a “drastic need” to address the problem.

“We are being very aggressive with the blight issue in the city,” Finch told the Hollises on Monday morning. “There are several properties in this area that we are focusing on.”

The Hollises told the board they had been seeking funds to demolish the former church, which used to house the Friendship Outreach Deliverance Ministries, but have not yet been able to do so. The pastor recognized that the building was past the point of salvaging.

“If we had the funding, it would be done today,” said Hollis.

Ultimately, the board decided to move forward with the demolition process. The city will publish a notice to solicit bids from contractors, award a contract to the low bidder, pay the demolition costs upfront and then place a lien on the property to recoup the costs.

That process was recommended for five others — 623 Caspian Ave., 1228 N. Ohio Ave., 1407 N. Ohio Ave., 1517 Penrose Ave. and 1538 Penrose Ave. — whose owners or agents were not present.

Clinton Walden, a code enforcement inspector, detailed some of the issues the abandoned properties pose for public safety and health officials. In addition to being eyesores, the vacant properties attract vagrants who seek shelter and, sometimes, a place to engage in criminal activity.

Oftentimes, Walden noted, the city will board the properties up only to have the same people forcibly enter, creating a cat-and-mouse game between code enforcement and the squatters.

“Every vacant property has that potential, especially in the winter time,” Walden said.

Not all the properties on the city’s list will be demolished.

Ernest Misters and his nephew, Garry Rogers, appeared before the board Monday after receiving a notice for the property at 1922 Grant Ave. The home was badly damaged by fire in April and has been unoccupied since. Even after being boarded up, the property has been broken into three separate times by vagrants.

Misters, 81, presented the board with a quote from a contractor who was going to completely gut the inside of the home so it could be rebuilt. The plan is to have the work finished by mid-July.

“My intention is to rehab (the building),” he told the hearing board. “We want the same thing you do.”

First phase of renovated rooms at Seaview Hotel set to open April 1

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — A local hotel with old bones is getting a much-needed facelift.

The first phase of the first room renovations since the early 2000s at Seaview Hotel & Golf Club — which has played host to heads of state and superstars — will be unveiled on April 1, according to general manager Bob Nelson.

The first phase of two — in the “Bay” wing — represents about half of the hotel’s 297 rooms. The renovations in the “Pines” wing will be open on May 1.

“This is an iconic hotel, classic hotel, and ... it’s gonna re-emerge as that same special place,” Nelson said. “Unfortunately, for the last few years, we’ve been sort of not at that standing. It’s all gonna change.”

The renovations were announced in October, and leadership planned to have them wrapped up in four months. The work was underway a little after Thanksgiving.

Guest rooms are being modernized: LED lights will replace chandeliers, and rooms will be outfitted with Smart TVs, among other changes. Some original touches, like baseboards from 1914, are being left in place.

PHOTOS of the Seaview Hotel & Golf Club under renovation

Some exterior work was restricted by winter weather and temperatures, Nelson said, like the name “Stockton” still emblazoned on the property water tower still awaiting a paint job.

Other changes underway include a new roof and renovations to public spaces like the lobby, which got new hardwood floors.

Construction of a new restaurant, an American grill, will start next winter and golf course re-landscaping and re-bunkering are being planned.

The plans were on the back-burner for years, according to Mike Tidwell, the director of sales and marketing, but were reintroduced when Stockton University sold the hotel and golf course to KDG Capital LLC in August.

The guest rooms were a top priority, Nelson said, as they hadn’t been updated in almost 17 years.

“Which is a long time for a hotel,” he said. “All the guest rooms have been completely redone; every aspect of them. This is the most complete renovation this hotel has ever gone through.”

The hotel and golf course hosts the annual ShopRite LPGA Classic in June. And almost every year, fans and golfers fill every room in the hotel, according to Tim Erensen, managing partner at Eiger Marketing Group, which owns the classic.

“The better accommodations we can provide, the more appealing it is to players. It’s a competitive space,” Erensen said. “(Players) can pick and choose which events that they come to.”

The classic has a history of hosting a strong field of golfers compared to other events, part of which can be attributed to the historic property, Erensen said.

As for whether the upgrades could draw new patrons, Tidwell said time will tell.

“There are groups that have been coming to us for 50 years, and they’re still coming,” Tidwell said. “And then you’re always looking for new, especially as you lift up the property and the quality, then you also look for a clientele to match up to that.”

Nelson said hotel management is in contact with AAA, and the renovations will lift the hotel’s rating to Four Diamonds. Just more than 6 percent of AAA-inspected hotels receive that standing. The upgrades could increase their occupancy by 30 percent in the next year, he said.

Workers from Massett Building Company bustled through the halls of the old hotel Friday, working to meet their upcoming deadlines.

Nelson said opening walls that haven’t been touched for more than a century has complicated things for builders in the past few months. But in the process, he said, workers discovered impeccable craftsmanship by the original builders.

“It’s the first time we’ve actually opened up some of these walls since 1914, so you don’t know what you’re going to find back there,” Nelson said. “What we did learn is that people back in 1914 were excellent at building things. They really took their time; everything is tongue-in-groove, and it’s really well-fitted, and it has stood the test of time.”

Photos of construction in EHT and Hamilton Township

Could Atlantic City be the headquarters for climate change research?

ATLANTIC CITY — Walking through the South Inlet last summer, among vacant buildings and lots, David Green pictured sleek research centers set beside the ocean.

There, the urban designer thought, scientists could study climate change in a community that’s bearing the brunt of sea level rise.

Empty casinos, a symbol of the city’s economic decline, would be turned into “innovation campuses” for laboratories and staff housing.

In Chelsea Heights, an agricultural research district would be built a few miles from a storm system test center in Venice Park. Experts would visit for conferences, and along the Boardwalk, a public art installation called “The Line” would represent expected sea level rise in Atlantic City.

“We call it science on display,” said Green, principal of Perkins+Will. The urban design firm created a unique plan for Atlantic City in 2015 to help guide the small resort town out of its reliance on gambling for tourism.

Four years on, the idea has gained some traction. Last week, the state Senate’s Environment Committee passed a bill designating Atlantic City as “an international center on global warming and change.”

It’s an ambitious proposal, but one Atlantic City is in a position to take on. Unlike casinos, climate change research hubs aren’t emerging in nearby cities— and there are only a few in the world, Green said, namely the Netherlands.

Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who sponsored the bill with Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, touted the plan as a way to create jobs in a city of 40,000 people.

The county government passed a similar resolution last year, and Mayor Frank Gilliam has said he wants the city to be a ”hub of innovation.”

But tangible results have mainly happened on a small, grassroots level.

Carly Griffiths, a Stockton graduate, began organizing a climate change conference for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) last year. She wrote a letter to the Press of Atlantic City about sea level rise and was contacted by David Dichter, an Atlantic City native and Marine Corps veteran who has long hoped to see the resort pivot from gambling to research.

He convinced the group to hold its conference in the resort.

“(I) have been working on this project on a pro-bono basis for the last several years in an effort to help our city chart a new professional direction for itself,” Dichter said.

In January, about 250 people visited the city for the two-day Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference at the Claridge Hotel, where NBC10 meteorologist Tammie Souza gave a talk on climate change in the media. The New Jersey Association for Floodplain Management also held a conference last October at Bally’s Atlantic City, where Dutch flood control expert Edgar Westerhof talked about coastal resilience.

Still, the bulk of the plan rests on whether research institutes want to build in the city.

Stockton is considering constructing a $41 million Marine and Environmental Science Center on Bader Field. The 600,000-square-foot building would accommodate about 500 students and would have docks and ramps for access to the ocean and bays.

The city and university are conducting a feasibility study with a $100,000 grant. A task force plans to meet in late April to assess the progress, the university said.

“What’s happening in Atlantic City is a lot of talk in terms of what they would like to do,” said Sabrina Fu, coordinator of the CCL’s Mid-Atlantic Region. “Between the talk and actually getting, there needs to be a lot of concrete action and self reflection.”

Cape towns hit harder than expected by state aid cuts

As proposed state aid numbers were released last week for individual school districts, towns in Cape May County were preparing for the worst.

They say they received that, and then some.

Under the governor’s proposed budget, Upper Township is losing $602,522 in state aid next year.

“Unfortunately, it is almost $101,000 more than we expected. None of us thought choice aid would be reduced, nor did we think they would reduce adjustment aid beyond the initial number,” Upper Township Superintendent Vincent Palmieri said. “We continue to review every line item and seek alternative ways to raise revenues, however, very difficult choices will be made.”

Most of the cuts are the result of the the bill known as S-2, the new school funding rules signed into law in July. The law reworked the school funding formula to phase out the categorical aid known as adjustment aid for towns where enrollment has declined over the years. It also eliminated the growth cap, which capped the amount of aid increases a district could receive if their enrollment grew.

The new school funding rule created winners and losers when it comes to state aid, and this year towns in Cape May County are feeling the cuts.

Of all the towns in the Press coverage area, Lower Township Elementary School District is seeing the greatest proposed reduction in aid, $947,285 for the 2019-2020 budget.

Lower Superintendent Jeff Samaniego said that reduction included a drop in adjustment aid of $778,315 — partly due to S-2, which was expected, and in part due to a decrease of 29 students in enrollment, an unexpected hit.

In addition, the aid the district receives to operate in the School Choice Program was also cut.

Samaniego said he is concerned the 2020-2021 school-year aid reduction would be more than $1.2 million.

“With reductions to that degree, significant operational changes would need to happen and the quality of education would be impacted,” Samaniego said. “This is a major concern for our community.”

Several towns hit hard by the state aid reductions, including Weymouth Township in Atlantic County, have sued the state over the cuts. Weymouth Board of Education member Henry Goldsmith said he has been urging other towns hurt by the aid reductions, like those in Cape May County, to follow suit. He said a hearing date has been scheduled in May.

Weymouth had severe aid cuts under S-2, and school officials agreed the reductions this year were more than expected.

“We did not expect to get cuts beyond the S-2 cuts. That additional reduction of approximately $100,000 will hurt the most and definitely have an impact directly on student programming,” said Weymouth Township Superintendent John Alfieri.

In addition, the same towns met with Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet to plead their case during a roundtable in December and many have also joined a group of 70 districts called Save Our Schools, which is actively opposing S-2.

Lower Cape May Regional Superintendent Chris Kobik was among the South Jersey contingent of educators in the Save Our Schools group who joined a rally in Trenton opposing the aid cuts during the governor’s budget address on March 5.

In a letter to the public urging them to voice their concerns to the state, Kobik said that the seventh-to 12th-grade district has already lost $511,929 in state aid during the current and past school year and stands to lose $6 million more over the next six years.

He said that is nearly 20 percent of the operating budget.

“The impact of this school funding law on Cape May County schools is particularly troubling,” Kobik wrote.

He said Cape May County has the highest unemployment rate in the state, among the lowest median income in the state, the highest per capita percentage of homeless students in the state, and the highest percentage of special education students in the state.

“These challenges must be considered when it comes to funding our schools,” Kobik wrote.

The changes to S-2 aren’t bad for all school districts in South Jersey, like Egg Harbor Township, which has been underfunded for several years.

The K-12 district will see a more than $4 million increase in aid, bringing its total aid to $48.1 million. Board member Pete Castellano said the district was $23.5 million below what it should be under the state formula, so he was pleasantly surprised with the bump.

“Our best guess was that we were going to get at least $3 million more this year,” he said. “So, the $4.2 million was a bit more than expected, but certainly very much needed. We have been working very hard to make sure all of our elected officials are aware of our need for full and fair funding.”

Castellano said the board will be looking at the budget beginning Tuesday, but the revenue will help the school, the students and the taxpayers.

“We have many critical unmet needs,” Castellano said. “They include having enough teachers and staff to keep class sizes small enough so students can learn, targeted interventions for students who are struggling, early childhood education including full-day kindergarten, and unmet capital needs in all of our aging buildings and infrastructure.”