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Byron and running mates look to Wildwood's future after sweeping Troiano from office

WILDWOOD — On most days from Labor Day until Election Day, Commissioner Pete Byron, Krista Fitzsimons and Steven Mikulski hit the streets, knocking on doors late into the night.

They were invited in to dining room tables to discuss the state of the city, before venturing back out into the dark. 

Byron said they "touched every door" in the city. 

"We made this a community election," he said. "We reached out to everyone."

It paid off. 

Last week, Byron, a Democrat, Fitzsimons, a Republican, and Mikulski, an Independent, each managed to win more votes than longtime mayor Ernie Troiano Jr., who was first elected as a commissioner in 1999 and first became mayor in 2003.

Troiano was recalled and ousted from the mayoralty in 2009, alongside Commissioner Bill Davenport, by residents disgruntled about the city's high tax rate, among other issues. He was elected again in 2011, on a ticket with Byron. 

Troiano, in an interview Tuesday, suggested something illegal took place in last week's election but declined to elaborate other than to say it would surface at some point.

"We're gonna let them enjoy their victory," Troiano said. "The people spoke, they elected someone who they thought could do a better job, and that's pretty much all I got to say ... I'm not going anywhere, I'll be back. I can assure you that. I'll be back."

Byron, 64, will be Wildwood's new mayor per an agreement with his running mates. Byron said his ticket avoided mudslinging and stuck closely to the issues: taxes, development and Boardwalk remediation. Asked whether the mudslinging was on social media, fliers, or something else, he said, "All of the above."

"We swept them," Byron said. "We never deviated from our issues, and we stuck to the plan we had. ... I think that the people appreciated that we actually did have a platform."

The team will work to stabilize taxes in the city after they take office, the commissioners-elect said, as they believe runaway tax hikes have not been coupled with transparent spending. They also hope to address long-standing infrastructure issues and gather business owners that benefit from proximity to the Boardwalk to discuss ways to finance its repair without burdening taxpayers with the bill, Byron said.

Residents brought up taxes and infrastructure as points of concern, the commissioners-elect said. But over and over, voters told them it was simply time for a change, said Fitzsimons, a Wildwood school board member and the program coordinator/planner for the Cape May County Division of Aging and Disability Services.

"As we were moving week by week ... we did feel the momentum," she said. "We just felt it, and we thought, 'They all can't be lying to us.'"

Currently a commissioner, Byron and Troiano have been at odds in the last few years, with Byron cutting ranks with Troiano and Commissioner Anthony Leonetti on a city budget. The two stripped Byron of his oversight of a number of departments and he accused the two of retaliation in a lawsuit against the city. The case was dismissed last year.

His running mates have history here, too.

Mikulski, a Navy veteran and owner of Key West Cafe on Pacific Avenue, bought a house in the city with his wife in 2007 after vacationing here for a few years. They opened their restaurant the next year. He decided to seek public office after hearing promises that never materialized, he said.

"And I've been hearing those promises for 13 years," said Mikulski, 54. "So I threw my name in the hat."

Fitzsimons, 47, had thought of running for office since she was a girl at St. Ann's Catholic School but didn't think she'd take the leap until she was older, she said. 

"After thinking about it long and hard ... it was just the right time. It really was," she said. "It was like, 'Why not now?'"

Their campaign advertising included two billboards on the way into the city, lawn signs, car magnets and social media, the commissioners-elect said. But "old school" electioneering took precedence. The team was still knocking on doors on election night, drumming up last-minute votes.

"We knew some people that were for our team that didn't get to vote yet, and we went and knocked on those doors that night, at 6:30, 7," Mikulski said. "Basically we knocked on every single door, we listened to every single person."

Mikulski and Fitzsimons were at their campaign headquarters on Pacific Avenue with supporters as voting results came in. Byron was at the Convention Center. Their ticket secured a total of 1,699 votes, while Troiano and his running mate Jeanne L. Killian secured 773 votes. The remaining four candidates, including former mayor Gary DeMarzo, tallied a total of 836 votes.

"That moment was just unbelievable," Mikulski said. "I love Wildwood, just as much as everybody else does here in Wildwood, and we are going to work for the people. The people are going to have an opinion here."

Byron will soon take the reins in Wildwood after more than eight years alongside Troiano, a fixture in the city's politics.

They've been friends for some 40 years, Byron said, but serving as commissioners together underscored their differences.

"It's just ... our relationship was like a marriage. You know someone, and then you marry them, and you find out certain things and you move on," Byron said. "It doesn't make one or the other a bad person just because they maybe have a different vision."

Cage Fury MMA thriving under Vineland's Rob Haydak

ATLANTIC CITY — Cage Fury Fighting Championships President Rob Haydak was driving through the swirling snow Tuesday morning, on his way to join CFFC partner Dave Sholler to deliver 150 turkeys to the Atlantic City Rescue Mission for Thanksgiving, when he remembered he was celebrating an anniversary this year.

“I realized that it has been 10 years since I started with Cage Fury,” Haydak said. “It’s been quite a journey.”

Haydak, 49, presided over CFFC 79 Saturday afternoon at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City. It was the organization’s eighth card this year and fourth in Atlantic City, which has become a hub for mixed martial arts in recent years.

CFFC has evolved into a regional MMA organization, staging cards in Philadelphia’s 2300 Arena and Parx Casino, and has even had two shows in California in the past three years. Next Sunday, Nov. 22, CFFC 80 will be held at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia.

But Atlantic City is its home. Together with Ring of Combat and the Professional Fighters League, Vineland-based CFFC has helped MMA overtake boxing as the most popular combat sport on the Boardwalk.

By year’s end, the three organizations will have combined to stage 11 shows in town in 2019.

Cage Fury returns to A.C. Nov. 16

Vineland-based Cage Fury Fighting Championships returns to Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City on Nov. 16 with a card that includes four title fights. Bantamweight champion Alexander Keshtov (9-0) of Russia will defend his title for the first time against Milwaukee’s Raufeon Stots (12-1) in the main event of CFFC79.

“Cage Fury, Ring of Combat and now the Professional Fighters League have become the staple (MMA) promotions for New Jersey,” said Deputy Attorney General Nick Lembo, who oversees MMA for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board along with Commissioner Larry Hazzard. “For the past decade, Cage Fury and Ring of Combat have acted as springboards for fighters who are trying to get to the UFC.”

According to Haydak, a 1989 Vineland High School graduate, CFFC has had more than 50 of its fighters sign with the UFC, including Millville middleweight Tim Williams. Most recently, former CFFC welterweight champ Sean Brady, of Philadelphia, won his UFC debut last month.

“One of our goals is to make sure we do everything in our power to help our fighters get to the next level,” Haydak said.

CFFC was formed in 2006 by husband and wife Felix and Amy Martinez, of Vineland. The couple staged five cards over two years, capped by a fight featuring the late Kimbo Slice and former heavyweight boxing champion Ray Mercer on June 23, 2007.

A crowd of 7,286 — then the biggest to see an MMA event in Atlantic City — watched Slice register a first-round submission over Mercer in a pay-per-view event at Boardwalk Hall.

The couple planned to have Slice meet former UFC tough guy Tank Abbott four months later at the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort — now Hard Rock — but Cage Fury’s financial troubles forced them to shut it down.

CFFC was idle until Haydak, who had been a wrestling teammate of Felix Martinez at Vineland High School, bought the company from his friend for $1 in 2010.

On Feb. 5, 2011, he held CFFC 6: The Return, at Resorts Casino Hotel.

“I had always been a huge fan of MMA and wanted to get involved,” said Haydak, who wrestled at Vineland and Wagner University. “Being an athlete myself, I understand the psychology of athletes, the amoun t of work and dedication it takes to train, cut weight, etc. That’s why the first thing I wanted to do was make sure the athletes were treated right.”

It was the first of seven shows he staged that year, all at Resorts’ Superstar Theatre with the backing of the late Dennis Gomes, who was then co-owner of Resorts.

Gomes, who died a year later at 68, was one of the first Atlantic City executives to realize the potential of MMA.

“I really had no idea what I was doing back then, and Dennis was a tremendous help,” Haydak said. “I approached him about doing shows at Resorts, and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ He was a great mentor to me and a big supporter.”

In recent years, Haydak has relied on others for support.

Three years ago, he decided to move CFFC into Alliance MMA Inc., the first publicly traded MMA company.

It also included Seattle-based Combat Games, Chicago-based Hoosier Fight Club, Baltimore-based Shogun Fights and Memphis, Tennessee-based V3 Fights.

Haydak, who was president of Alliance, was fired early last year but was able to maintain control of Cage Fury after reaching an out-of-court settlement with Alliance.

Since then, he’s focused on strengthening the organization’s reputation as a top regional promotion with the help of Sholler, longtime matchmaker Arias Garcia, Brad Boulton, Cory Levin and others.

Sholler, of Mays Landing, is the Philadelphia 76ers’ vice president of communications after an eight-year stint with the UFC. He became a partner in CFFC last year and helped the organization negotiate a deal with UFC Fight Pass.

“Rob has been a friend of mine for years, since I was with the UFC,” Sholler said. “When he approached me with the idea of becoming a partner, I immediately jumped on board.”

Saturday’s card was CFFC’s 73rd since Haydak bought the company. It was their fourth card at Hard Rock after a long, successful run at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.

He’s watched some of the sport’s rising stars engage in thrilling fights. But none has produced the level of excitement he experienced as Sacred Heart High School’s wrestling coach in 2008.

In March that year, he helped guide Sacred Heart’s Scott Kelley to the final of the state individual championships at Boardwalk Hall, where Kelley lost to three-time state champion Scott Winston of Jackson Memorial.

“I still get goosebumps talking about it,” Haydak said. “Just walking toward the mat with Scott and (assistant coach) Duke DiJoseph in Boardwalk Hall, knowing how hard Scott had worked to get to that point, it still ranks at the top for me.”

GALLERY: Cage Fury Fighting Championships 74 at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City

Family of Dulce Maria Alavez says fresh search coming with divers, dogs

BRIDGETON — Family and volunteers helping the family of Dulce Maria Alavez say a fresh search by divers and police dogs may finally yield answers in the case of the missing 5-year-old.

Two months after the girl disappeared from a playground at City Park, the family held a candlelight vigil Saturday in the backyard of a volunteer’s home.

Dozens gathered to join the family in tearful prayer and pleas for the safe return of their daughter, niece, sister and cousin.

“It’s hard for us because we haven’t heard anything,” said Noema Alavez Perez, Dulce’s mother. “But we have faith that she’s still alive and safe.”

Perez, 19, was in her car with an 8-year-old relative when she saw her 3-year-old son crying and pointing to where he last saw Dulce, police said. State Police issued an Amber Alert the next day. She has also been placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list of missing or kidnapped persons.

During the vigil, members of the family held signs asking for Dulce’s return. After remarks from family spokeswoman Jackie Rodriguez and volunteer Stacey Filoon, members of the city’s Immaculate Conception Church led the group in prayer.

The message of the night, Rodriguez said, was simple:

“Two months have passed, but we still haven’t given up hope,” she said. “We are still searching, and we’ll continue searching.”

Rodriguez added that she and Perez recently went on the “Dr. Phil” show to tell Dulce’s story and to bring awareness to her disappearance. The show will air locally at 3 p.m. Thursday on CBS, she said.

She also is organizing Operation Dulce — a community-based group to assist in searches and fundraising efforts for bumper stickers, banners and billboards. More searches are in the works but are still being finalized, Rodriguez said Sunday.

The family recently requested the assistance of a dive team and police K-9 unit. The city approved, so the search can continue as soon as the family signs off on it. The plan, Rodriguez said, is to start from the beginning as if it’s the first day of the investigation.

Rodriguez believes fear in the community has resulted in an unwillingness to talk and a lack of awareness.

“(The family) doesn’t have their papers,” Rodriguez said. “They’re not legal here. They’re scared. They’re not the only ones that are scared. There are many out there in the city of Bridgeton that feel the same way. I feel like a lot of people are afraid to speak because of that problem.”

To date, $52,000 has been raised as a reward for information leading to Dulce’s return. Alavez Perez has been skeptical of the efforts of the police after all this time.

“Every time they come to the house, they said that they don’t have any news,” Alavez Perez said. “They still don’t have a clue where my daughter could be, so I’m not sure if they’re doing their job or not.”

Filoon, who’s from Philadelphia and got involved via Facebook, is hopeful the dive team and K-9 unit will produce results.

“I believe that maybe they’re going to find some answers, maybe something that a dog didn’t pick up or just some other kind of small evidence that either the baby’s in the community still or that we have to search on the outskirts,” Filoon said.

Filoon, like Rodriguez, stressed the importance of community awareness at a time like this. She said they’re trying to rent a billboard and create a banner to hang over Broad Street.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Filoon said. “Well, it’s going to take a village to bring her home.”

Anyone with information can call Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033 or the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI, or text information to tip411 with the word “Bridgeton.” Pictures or videos can be uploaded to fbi.gov/alavez.

GALLERY: Vigil for Dulce Maria Alavez in Bridgeton

Staff writer CJ Fairfield contributed to this report.

Absegami events to receive more exposure through Galloway Township's cable channel

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Earlier this month, the Absegami High School girls volleyball team played a home game against Nutley to start the state Group III tournament.

Four students recorded the action taking place inside the gym because it was a playoff match.

Two students had video cameras mounted on tripods. One stood on the gym floor while the other was placed on a platform above the action. Another student shot video and stills with the same camera while a fourth student operated a still camera.

Parents, friends and relatives can now rewatch the jubliation of the girls winning their first playoff match whenever they like and as often as they like through a new deal struck between the township and Absegami.

The township agreed to allow someone from the high school to oversee G-TV Channel 97 and provide free content for the cable channel, said Chris Johansen, township manager.

The high school gained greater exposure for the work filmed by its media students, whether it’s sports, morning news broadcasts or such events as “Dancing with the Staff,” Johansen said.

One of the problems of having the township run G-TV Channel 97 included training someone new to oversee the operation anytime the assigned employee retires or leaves the job.

According to Johansen, the high school has a media department, an in-house TV station, Gami-TV, a TV curriculum and is less likely to have turnover of its media teachers. Michael Piotrowski is the high school media arts instructor at Absegami.

Currently, programs are taped first and later placed on G-TV to be watched.

Broadcasting live on G-TV is a work in progress, Johansen said.

“Possibly, they can do graduation in the future,” Johansen said. “The goal is to livestream over the internet. There is only so much content (the township) can generate.”

Haleigh Schafer, 16, is an Absegami junior in the honors digital video and editing class. Schafer shot both video and still pictures of the volleyball match.

“I love videos. I like it is really interesting, and it could possibly be my future,” said Schafer, who added she loves shooting volleyball and football. “Friday night lights is definitely my favorite.”