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Candles replace Christmas lights and bring neighbors together in this Egg Harbor Township neighborhood

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — While many front yards in the Crystal Lakes neighborhood have their own electric holiday light displays, RoseAnne DeSanges and her fiance Bill McLarnon are hoping this year’s community candle lighting tradition they originated will be the brightest one yet.

For the last 13 years, McLarnon and DeSantes have organized a holiday light display called a “luminaria” that stretches across the neighborhood roads, but this year they want to expand in the community and connect almost 100 homes.

“Not only does it look really beautiful, it really brings people together,” DeSantes said.

While electric string lights are a popular trend for individual yards, the luminaria has its own “magical” effect.

Neighbors who wish to participate put out 10 paper bags along their front curb. Each bag contains its own candle and is placed at about equal distances of 3 to 4 feet apart. At around the same time on Christmas Eve, residents light their candles and it creates a continuous glow that traces the streets of the neighborhood.

The tradition started in McLarnon’s hometown in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The couple thought they should bring it with them when they moved to the Township in 2006.

DeSantes and McLarnon do all the work behind the scenes, including buying the long-lasting candles that glow through the night, the flame-retardant bags and securing sand they need so that the bags stay put in any weather. The couple only asks for $10, the total cost for supplies and do it all on their own.

The luminaria display is not just a festive holiday display for DeSantes and McLarnon. It’s also a tradition that residents in the growing neighborhood have come to look forward to.

“They’re excited about it,” DeSantes said. “It’s amazing because we have Muslims, Catholics, Protestants. We have people that don’t even celebrate Christmas, and they want to participate.”

DeSantes said the candle-lighting event will often turn into friendly conversation and some in the neighborhood will even kick off their own caroling.

The couple started the candle display with just six houses, the next year it grew to 12 and now it’s getting even bigger. This year, DeSantes said by the middle of December they are getting close to their goal, with almost 90 homes participating.

Their housing development, which branches off of Ridge Avenue between Oakland and Spruce avenues, has seen a lot of growth in recent years. At one point, DeSantes and McLarnon and only had a handful of neighbors made up the development, now construction has kicked up again.

On Dec. 15, workers carried a small pine tree in a wheelbarrow down the road as others pounded away at the wooden frame of a new home.

“We had neighbors who used to buy extra and put them on the empty lots,” DeSantes said. “Well there are hardly any empty lots in our section anymore because they’re building so fast.”

DeSantes even mentioned hopes to expand across Ridge Avenue and spread the tradition to the neighboring LaCosta Lakes development.

While their reach continues to grow, fellow Crystal Lakes residents Philip Munafo and his wife, Chris, joined in on the display from the start.

“People liked it and bought into the idea of it and thought it was great, and it looked really neat,” Chris Munafo said. “And it was nice for the kids — something different — to get outside and put out the candles and look out at the whole row along the winding streets. It’s really pretty at night.”

Philip Munafo once helped McLarnon get the materials for the candles back when there were about 30 homes.

“I did it because I wanted to support this effort, and I had fun doing it,” Munafo said. “It’s a nice community thing. It’s warm. It’s refreshing and you meet people that you wouldn’t know because everybody’s here. You talk to everybody.”

Munafo stressed that he sees it is an open invite to any and all people who live in the neighborhood.

“Everybody’s doing it,” he said. “It’s not like you have to be a Catholic or a Christian. It’s the spirit of the holiday. Anybody and everybody is welcome to participate.”

On Dec. 13, McLarnon still had lots of doors to knock on and candles to deliver.

“I always kid him. I say, ‘Bill, I’m going to make you the mayor of the neighborhood,’” Munafo said.

The tradition has grown with the neighborhood. Now Munafo estimates there are 60-80 every year. Bill does a tremendous amount of work to support the tradition he loves.

“(If) they keep getting more people, pretty soon he’s going to need a train load of sand,” Munafo said. “He’s going to need Santa’s helpers.”

When the sun sets on Christmas Eve, the lights will go on in Crystal Lakes.

“I think it’s going to be really really beautiful this year because we have so many more people,” Munafo said. “You have to see it. It’s really heartwarming.”

Target employee finds fun in the holiday shopping rush

MAYS LANDING — Kari Egan had worked at the area Toys R Us store for five years before it closed in June 2018, gaining a passion for the retail environment.

After the company closed, Egan took about a year off. The 44-year-old Mays Landing resident, however, quickly found her way back, accepting a position at the area Target in September.

And it was just in time for the holiday rush.

“I actually do enjoy (working retail during the holidays),” Egan said. “I am very comfortable with it. I’ve done it many years with Toys R Us, so I like to see people make their Christmas happy. In my experience, when the guests are happy, it makes work a lot more fun.”

For many retail workers, the holiday season can be very stressful. Not only are most stores busy, but also stores must deal with call outs and shorthanded staff, the stress of longer hours and the occasional unhappy customers.

But seeing most customers in the holiday spirit and spreading that joy makes the extra work all worth it for employees like Egan.

“You can’t take it personally,” she said. “It’s just the nature of the season. People are stressed out. If you don’t take it personally, it’s a load of stress off you. Just go about your day and everything will work out the way its supposed to.”

Egan, who is a cashier, works at the customer service desk and assists with online pickups. She typically works 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., but is available anytime between 7 a.m. to midnight. She was hired as a seasonal employee.

Egan said the store has been very busy since Black Friday.

“It has actually been very nice and a lot of fun,” Egan said.

Aaron Lucas, who is the executive team lead manager for service and engagement at Target, said the company’s aim is to engage and serve their guests and keep them as happy as possible.

That’s not always an easy task, but Lucas has been pleased with the store’s overall performance this holiday season.

“It’s crazy, but the right kind of crazy,” Lucas said. “You have a lot of guests that are so excited to make their children and family members happy. The hustle-and-bustle, that’s not really my thing. I just enjoy seeing smiles on people’s faces. I want to make everyone smile, not just the guests but my team members, too.”

Lucas tells his employees that they are all a part of the same team. The 30-year-old from Atlantic City preaches not to panic and stay calm with each customer.

More importantly, he wants his employees to interact with each other and work together to ensure customer sanctification.

“I really appreciate community,” Lucas said. “(There are) a lot of repeat faces, and others are coming in droves. They look for certain team members on the floor to help them out or at the check-out line. It is really refreshing to see. It tells us we are doing something right.”

Egan isn’t bothered by the holiday season and, if the day is more challenging, her philosophy is to breathe and not let if affect getting the job done.

She doesn’t want the holidays to end.

“You look forward to maybe being with your families more, but I like the holiday season,” Egan said. “I like the hustle-and-bustle. It keeps you busy and time goes by faster. You want everyone all excited for the holidays.”

Thousands of jobs revolve around the Delaware River

PHILADELPHIA — On a brisk, clear November morning at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Captain Jesse Briggs nudged a tugboat’s bow against a barge loaded with steel beams. He sipped black coffee while two deckhands hopped off the boat and onto the barge to cinch the two tight.

The Penrose pushed the barge south down the Delaware River and turned into the Schuylkill, passing beneath two bridges and Passyunk Avenue and all the motorists on their commutes. Yellow leaves swirled on the narrow river until the tug mowed them over. Past the bare trees on the port side, junked cars piled up like mangled steel mountains. The starboard side was pipes and petroleum tanks. Sometimes tires roll down the bank and into the water, Briggs said by the junkyard, but sometimes something wild appears too, a reminder that waters are an environment, not just an economy.

“Look, there’s a bald eagle,” he said.

The Delaware River, the Schuylkill, and the watershed that feeds them generate billions of dollars in revenue and taxes, a wide, murky vein that’s fed Philadelphia and other waterfront cities for centuries. Thousands make a living from the watershed, most of them south of Trenton where the river is deep and tidal.

The economics of the river, historically, have trumped ecological and recreational concerns in the lower Delaware, a resource for several states to tap.

“When I became mayor of Philadelphia, we were losing 3,000 jobs a month. There were very few options, particularly options for people who didn’t have an education,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. “For blue-collar workers, I thought the greatest chance for expansion would be the ingress and egress of goods on the waterfront. Those jobs there get a lot of overtime and a chance to make $100,000 a year. They’re like manna from heaven.”

Not everyone makes six figures on the river, and with the advent of automation, the days of the pure laborer are over. Machines guided by human hand, not muscle, do most of the work, meaning fewer hands are needed. Up and down the water, however, lives still revolve around the river, perhaps a side job or two, everything from canoe rentals to fishing guides to restaurants with a scenic view.

Not for the faint of heart

Briggs and his deckhands work for River Services, pushing ships and research buoys, barges full of mud or fireworks, up and down the waterways in the city and beyond. Many at River Services began their careers working on the waterfront’s tall ships, the Moshulu and the lesser-known Gazela.

Briggs grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, in a family of tugboat captains. He piloted tugboats before he could drive.

“My dad started me out when I was about 10 years old,” said Briggs, now 62.

He moved north to get married and for many years, Briggs was the captain of New Jersey’s official tall ship, the A.J. Meerwald.

On this morning, the 55-foot Penrose was delivering steel to Southwest Philadelphia, where a pedestrian bridge is being built across the Schuylkill. River Services charged $475 for the run up the Schuylkill. Captains like Briggs are making anywhere from $300 to $500 a day and hourly workers for River Services make $20 to $40 per hour, owner Scott Cointrot says.

Which sounds good, but he cautions: “We work seven days a week, 24 hours a day.”

Out on the Delaware’s channel, dredged deep to handle the serious traffic, ships 1,000 feet long come and go all day as well, some with cargo containers stacked 50 feet high on the deck, others with oil, steel, and sedans from South Korea down below.

According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, nearly 42 million gallons of crude oil are moved in and out of the watershed daily. The shipping containers unloaded in Philadelphia’s ports hold a mind-boggling array of goods: bananas, grapes, toilet seats, cocoa beans, and in June, even more than 35,000 pounds of cocaine that was seized by the feds.

“Everything you’re eating that’s imported, everything you’re drinking that’s imported, it’s all coming through containers,” said Leo Holt, president of Holt Logistics. “Everything you find in Walmart or BJ’s or Costco is coming through containers.”

“Everything you’re eating that’s imported, everything you’re drinking that’s imported, it’s all coming through containers.”

Leo Holt, president of Holt Logistics

Holt grew up in northeastern Philadelphia, and his grandfather started the family’s shipping business in 1926 with a single truck. Today, the family’s Packer Avenue terminal on the waterfront in South Philly can be seen for miles, its cranes perched by the water like metal leviathans. The largest of the cranes, called “Super post-Panamax,” run $12 million apiece. Holt recently purchased three of them while the state paid for two as part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s $300 million port investment plan.

“For the moment, we’re done,” Holt said on a tour of the facility on an October afternoon.

Holt employs about 1,400 people, most of them Teamsters and longshoremen. Many of the jobs, he said, are highly skilled, including the crane operators. The operator sits in a cockpit that’s nearly all glass, including the floor. It’s not for the faint of heart, careening out a few hundred feet over the water.

But many of the positions Holt needs to fill would require only a high school diploma, he said, and there’s ample training available. He mentioned the recent opening of the Citizens Bank Regional Maritime Training Center in Southwest Philly, which will help trainees with certifications.

We’re in a worker shortage, Holt said. “We need young people to aspire to jobs like this.”

Queen of the Delaware

The watershed also supports smaller, quieter professions, like the man who trapped eels in the upper reaches of the Delaware in New York or James Bintliff, the Burlington County man who collects a secret mud that’s rubbed on Major League baseballs. Steve Meserve nets shad every spring in Lambertville the way his ancestors did, but that’s more of a historical reenactment than an industry in 2019.

Then there’s Ruth “Queen of the Delaware” Jones. She’s 86, an only child who grew up on the Delaware in New Jersey and hasn’t strayed from the river. Other waterways and paddling destinations don’t interest her. The Susquehanna River, which cuts Pennsylvania in half, is too wide; the Pine Barrens of New Jersey a bit too dirty for her. On a recent November morning, she stood by the Delaware in Sullivan County, N.Y., holding her favorite wooden paddle. Pike County, Pa., where she lives, was just a few hundred yards away, across the water.

“The river was my playmate, my playground, and it became my best friend,” Jones said by the water. “I know the river like the back of my hand from Hancock all the way down to past the Gap as far as Belvidere.”

“Below there,” she said of the little Jersey town a good 80 miles north of Philadelphia, “I wouldn’t even go near it.”

The family business, Kittatinny Canoes, started in 1941 on waterfront property her parents owned in what is now the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area. At first, they just rented out their six canoes. But one day, a man asked Jones’ father, Ernie Olschewsky, whether he could load a canoe into his truck, and drive him upriver. By 1984, the family owned 1,200 canoes.

Jones believes Kittatinny is the nation’s oldest active canoe livery, and today, the family’s small empire includes multiple locations on the river along with several campgrounds.

“By word of mouth, people started coming and saying, ‘You do canoe trips, right?’ ” Jones said.

Her son, Dave Jones, said Kittatinny sends thousands of people out on the water each weekend in the summer. Most use rafts and tubes these days, instead of kayaks and canoes. Recreation in the watershed is still very much an industry, amounting to a little over $1 billion a year according to some reports. It’s an environmentally friendly way to make a living off the water, he noted.

However many cans of beer that paddlers have dropped in the river since 1941, Ruth Jones’ annual river cleanups have more than made up. She organized the first cleanup in 1990 and in the decades that followed, collected a staggering 9,000 tires out of the water.

Jones said she’s canoed every square inch of the river. She uses a walker today and doesn’t get out on the water anymore, but it’s all still clear in her memories.

“I know every rock, every rapid,” she said. “Every turn.”

Jones has a favorite spot on the Delaware too. She wants her ashes spread there, but won’t reveal the location. It’s a secret she keeps with her best friend.

Boardwalk Hall facade project to begin in 2020

ATLANTIC CITY — The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved spending up to $1.8 million to restore portions of the facade on Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

The historic building's proximity to the ocean, with a constant barrage of salt and moisture, necessitated a multiphase project to ensure its structural integrity, CRDA officials said. 

The masonry and restoration project is slated to begin in March along the Boardwalk-facing side of the 90-year old landmark. Officials anticipate the work will be completed by summer.

Boardwalk Hall will remain open during the construction.

The project is part of a multiphase effort in the authority's long-term facilities capital management plan. The time frame for the entire scope of the project to be completed is yet to be determined. 

CRDA Board Chairman Robert Mulcahy said the "important project" would concentrate on the "worst area" that has been most severely impacted by the elements.

The project includes the facade pylon, any needed structural steel repair, stone masonry repointing and replacement, and crack repairs. 

In addition to pulling out the limestone to examine steel and wood behind the stone, the two rusted-out light towers on top of Boardwalk Hall will be removed. The towers were installed in the 1980s, have no historic significance, are inoperable and are causing rust to run down onto the stone facade, officials said.

The last renovation of the outside of Boardwalk Hall was in 2010 and, prior to that, in the early 1980s. 

Pullman SST, Inc., of Swedesboro, Gloucester County, was awarded a contract that allocates an amount not to exceed $1,863,000.

Boardwalk Hall, which opened in 1929, is listed on the National Historic Registry. 

The CRDA assumed responsibility of Boardwalk Hall, West Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center in 2011. At the time, Boardwalk Hall and West Hall were in need of "significant capital improvements to the building envelope," CRDA officials said. Since 2011, a full roof replacement, restroom renovations, electrical, plumbing and HVAC upgrades, and aesthetic work has been completed. 

In other business, the CRDA approved as-needed contracts for plumbing ($750,000) and HVAC ($1.5 million) services from Falasca Mechanical and Herman Goldner Company for both Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center. The two-year deals expire in September 2021.

The Board of Directors also extended an as-needed contract with Warriner's Construction, of Egg Harbor Township, until the end of 2020 for landscaping and materials for beautification projects in the Tourism District.