As families packed up their vehicles and businesses along the boardwalks put up sale signs in a last-ditch effort to unload their wares before the season ended, the signs of summer were still apparent in Ocean City and Atlantic City.
The beaches were lined with umbrellas. Bicyclists and surrey riders weaved in-and-out among pedestrians clad in bathing trunks, sleeveless shirts and flip-flops. The sweet aroma of caramel corn and cotton candy wafted along the ocean breeze.
But, to some vacationers and local merchants, the Labor Day weekend, and the summer of 2019, in general, felt different.
The Rosenblums, who try to come down to Ocean City nearly every weekend from Summit, Union County, to stay at the family’s beach house, said they noticed a change this summer, although they did not share a perspective.
“I think it’s been busier,” said Megan Rosenblum, 37. “Traffic has been pretty heavy this summer.”
Her husband, Zack, also 37, thought otherwise.
“I don’t think I’ve noticed it being busier,” he said. “I think (the traffic has been) lighter, but we don’t count people on the Boardwalk, so I don’t know.”
Zack, Megan, and their two sons, Thatcher, 5, and Milo, 2, had the entire 18-hole track of Goofy Golf to themselves Monday morning.
The man who has tended the entrance to the Boardwalk amusement for nearly 28 years said he thought 2019 was a summer to remember.
“It’s been good. I think it’s been good, but I just work here, so what do I know?” said Tom Ferguson, 88, of Ocean City, with a slight chuckle.
Doug Bergen, Ocean City spokesman, said the sale of pre-season beach tags was up this year and June’s numbers were higher this year than last. Bergen also said parking revenue was higher this summer.
“We won’t have final numbers for a couple more weeks, but it could be a record summer,” Bergen said. “We’ve had great weather, and great weekend weather in particular. That makes all the difference.”
Up the coast, in Atlantic City, numbers seemed to indicate an increase in visitation to the World’s Playground as well. According to data from the South Jersey Transpiration Authority, year-to-date toll-paying traffic at the Pleasantville Plaza on the Atlantic City Expressway was up more than 11% through July, with nearly 470,000 more trips recorded.
Still, some felt the seaside resort was not as busy as prior years.
Muhammad Ali, of Atlantic City, has worked behind the counter at One Stop Souvenirs for four years. Ali said not having as many high-profile entertainment options this summer hurt local business.
“We used to have two or three (beach) concerts and people came and shopped,” he said. “This year, only one (Vans Warped Tour at the end of June), and we weren’t as busy.”
Mel Umbrel, 50, of Bloomfield, Essex County, said she and her family stay at the Atlantic Palace on New York Avenue because they enjoy the location of the hotel, its proximity to other things to do and the city itself. But, this year wasn’t the same.
“In previous years, (Atlantic City) was more crowded than this year,” she said. “There was a lot of people, but, compared to previous years, it was not as crowded.”
To some locals, hearing that the summer crowds were thinning out was music to their ears.
“We still have like a month left of summer,” said Talbot Baum, of Ventnor, who was cruising the Boardwalk on his electric scooter. “It’s the best time of year.”
Get ready for some hard-fought 2019 races in the 1st and 2nd Legislative Districts, two of the most highly competitive areas in the state with voters who elect both Democrats and Republicans.
Spending increases when seats are open, or where both parties feel they have a shot at winning, said Joe Donohue, deputy director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
“When you look at the last 20 years, they are two of the districts that have drawn the highest spending,” Donohue said.
The districts have gone back and forth between party control, said Stockton University Hughes Center acting Director John Froonjian. No party has had all of the 2nd District’s seats since 2005, according to an April 2018 NJ ELEC white paper.
“Voters in these districts really do evaluate closely and don’t just vote the party line,” Froonjian said.
New Jersey’s 1st District is one of just 12 of the state’s 40 districts in which registered Republicans outnumber Democrats. However, unaffiliated voters outnumber each.
The first covers all of Cape May County and parts of Cumberland and Atlantic counties.
And the 1st District is the only one with a state Senate race this year. That’s because when former Democrat state Sen. Jeff Van Drew became U.S. Rep. Van Drew, he left Trenton and created the need for a special election. Former Assemblyman Bob Andrzejczak was appointed to Van Drew’s senate seat until November, and he faces a challenge by Cumberland County Republican Chairman Mike Testa.
The 2nd District, which covers most of Atlantic County, has historically been the bigger spender. But this year it may be the 1st District, Donohue said, since all three seats are up.
On the Assembly side, Democratic incumbents Bruce Land, a retired corrections officer, and Matt Milam, a retired businessman, are being challenged by Republicans Erik Simonsen and Antwan McClellan. Simonsen is the mayor of Lower Township and the athletic director at Lower Cape May Regional School District. McClellan is an Ocean City councilman and works as a confidential assistant, personnel director and public information officer in the Cape May County Sheriff’s Department.
Froonjian said debates are particularly important in both districts because people tend not to be strict party line voters but choose based on issues.
The Hughes Center and The Press of Atlantic City will announce this week the scheduling of debates for the 2nd District candidates and are working toward scheduling one for the 1st District as well.
“Debates allow people to evaluate the candidates who want to represent the district,” Froonjian said. “It gives a chance for voters to evaluate them up close, and they will have the opportunity to see the debate live.”
The 2nd is one of only two districts in the state where each party has at least one elected state legislator. State Sen. Chris Brown, who does not have a race this year, is a Republican. He was elected after Democrat state Sen. Jim Whelan died in 2017.
In the 2nd District, Democrat Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo, former mayor of Northfield, and John Armato, former Buena Vista Township committeeman, are being challenged by Republican Phil Guenther, former longtime mayor of Brigantine, and Freeholder John Risely, of Egg Harbor Township.
Donohue said the overwhelming majority of districts in the state, unlike the 1st and 2nd, are relatively safe for both Democrats and Republicans — largely because of redistricting.
In addition to the 1st and 2nd, Donohue said there could be competitive races in the 8th, 11th, 21st and 25th.
The 8th includes Hammonton in Atlantic County, as well as parts of Burlington and Camden counties. It is where state Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego recently changed parties, splitting from the district’s two Republican assemblymen.
But there may be surprises in store once the political season gets underway.
“It’s been very quiet,” Donohue said. “Normally the real action starts after people get off the beach.”
One exception to the post-Labor Day start was Senate President Steve Sweeney’s last race in 2017, when the 3rd District Democrat representing parts of Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester counties was up against lots of opposition spending by the New Jersey Education Association. The teachers’ union was unhappy with his work with Republican Gov. Chris Christie on health and benefit reform for public workers. That is the most expensive race in state history, with a total of almost $19 million spent — $14.4 million by independent groups rather than political parties.
“The Sweeney race went from April through the election,” Donohue said.