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Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Middle’s Sophia Braun places first in 50 freestyle against Lower Cape May Regional swim meet at Cape May Tech High School Tuesday Dec 18, 2018. Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer

One of Santa's helpers has a South Jersey accent and a Super Bowl ring

SOMERS POINT — In a firehouse one Wednesday in December, John Brenner gets ready to transform into one of Santa’s helpers.

“They’re amazed, like ‘there’s Santa Claus,’” Brenner says. “It’s like magic for the kids.”

Brenner takes great pride in his suit. It cost $600, the bill footed by a friend.

For 16 years, Brenner, 58, has donned it for adult parties, private events and friends’ homes — never accepting pay. He’s made as many as 13 visits on one Christmas Eve. And for a few years, he would arrive accompanied by an elf — his son, Casey.

Brenner, a retired Atlantic City firefighter and member of a Philadelphia Eagles’ on-field security squad, places what looks like a giant’s ring on the table.

Brenner, now the proprietor of J.B.’s Firehouse Meatballs, retired as an Atlantic City firefighter in 2010 and as a volunteer in Northfield’s company two years after that.

“I got too old for running into burning buildings,” he says.

Brenner left the ring — one that staff could buy after February’s Super Bowl — on the table as he finished preparing for an appearance down the street at Shore Medical Center. He pulls on fireman boots and cinches his belt. All the while, in the station’s rec room with Yuengling on tap and a faded felt pool table, he’s telling stories — and has people in stitches.

When he was growing up, his neighbor would have Santa visit the house on Christmas Eve for area kids. They had no chimney, Brenner said, so Santa would climb the roof from a ladder in the backyard and then slip back down, reappearing in the house to the kids’ amazement.

However, one year, he didn’t make it to the living room; he fell from the ladder and broke his arm.

Conversation in the firehouse turned to infamous Santa mishaps. Brenner says he suggested to Eagles higher-ups once that he make an appearance as Santa for a game. No way, they said; not after a crowd infamously rained snowballs on a ratty, replacement Santa. He understood. How about only if it doesn’t snow? he countered. Still no.

Brenner has surrounded himself with friends and work he loves since his retirement. He’s needed to keep his mind occupied; he’s needed some purpose.

In the late summer of 2011, an SUV overturned and rolled on the Garden State Parkway, killing four, including the driver, and injuring four others.

All were Mainland Regional High School football players, part of a caravan headed to eat after their last practice of the summer, a team tradition.

And Brenner’s son, Casey, was behind the wheel.

Casey’s younger brother Ryan, also on the team, chose to ride in another car.

“That first Christmas, and Thanksgiving, and all the holidays and the birthdays, they’re brutal,” he said. “Seven years later, they’re still really hard. Lost a piece of my heart that day.”

This time of the year was a favorite of Casey’s, he says. His brothers weren’t interested in playing the elf.

“He loved Christmas,” said Brenner, who planted an evergreen tree behind his son’s memorial bench — where Merritt Drive crosses the Linwood Bike Path — and decorates it every year.

The activity he once shared with his youngest son — bringing Christmas to kids — to this day, remains a bittersweet ritual.

“I get a little emotional when I put the suit on,” Brenner said. “It’s a hard time of the year.”

Fully-suited now, Brenner takes a call. He talks logistics, says they’ll be on their way in just a moment. And then, Brenner lets out a full-bellied Santa laugh. “You guys ready?” he asks the kids. “We’ll be down there, you guys behave yourself now, alright?”

In the two-minute engine ride from the station to the Bay Avenue lawn in front of the hospital, Brenner, as blue and as funny as he is, transforms. Kids with their parents cheer the truck’s arrival, and he exits the vehicle a new man.

Trees out front, donated by the hospital, are strung with lights by the community. Holding a microphone, Brenner counts down their lighting up.

David Hughes, founder of Somers Point Community First, and CFO and chief development officer at Shore Medical Center, personally invited Brenner.

“We’re very pleased with the turnout. Considering this is our first time, and to have this big of a crowd,” Hughes said, as Jingle Bells was played live behind him. “It makes it really exciting when Santa comes with the fire department and it makes it really a nice experience for the kids.”

It’s special for Brenner, too. He gets to re-create the Christmas wonder he remembers from his childhood, the one he brought to his own children.

Kids crowded around for a chance to tell Santa what they wanted, their parents snapping photos and drinking hot chocolate. He handed out miniature candy canes. And he showed the Santa-sized ring to two wide-eyed brothers, the bay and its winterized boats sleeping quietly across the street.

And there was no John Brenner then, only Santa.

Some developers look to take advantage of Atlantic City's Opportunity Zones

ATLANTIC CITY — The newest in hotel design — shipping containers — may soon come to this resort as a result of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s approval of four Opportunity Zones here back in the spring.

Asbury Park developer Pat Fasano wants to be the first in the city to open a hotel that will be made out of surplus containers. Shipping container hotels are popping up around the world and mix modern design, environmentally friendly sustainability and tiny house living.

Fasano is one of several developers who is giving more consideration to doing projects in the city after Gov. Phil Murphy announced in the spring four Opportunity Zones in the resort that offer preferential tax treatment.

“There are already developers on the ground in Atlantic City taking advantage of it, and other potential developers, particularly out of Asbury Park, who have met with us, are interested in bringing private capital to Atlantic City in large part due to the Opportunity Zone,” said Matt Doherty, the executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority.

Eight months ago, Gov. Murphy announced the approval through the U.S. Department of the Treasury of the four zones in the resort — Chelsea, Ducktown, Uptown/Downtown and South Inlet.

The Opportunity Zone is a new development tool for economically-distressed communities that offers tax incentives for investing.

Besides the four Opportunity Zones in the resort, Murphy also announced them in Egg Harbor City, Egg Harbor Township, Pleasantville, Somers Point, Wildwood, West Wildwood, Lower Township, Bridgeton, Vineland and Millville.

As a new year is about to begin, the Opportunity Zone is already doing what is was supposed to do — enticing developers to consider doing business in the resort, Doherty said.

Even though CRDA owns property in each of the four city Opportunity Zones, Doherty said he still sees his organization coming into play the way it traditionally does when it comes to the Opportunity Zones.

First, CRDA has the responsibility for land use, so it will approve or reject what will be built in the Opportunity Zone whether or not CRDA owns the land, Doherty said.

“The second way is ... if a developer comes and pitches a project in an Opportunity Zone and it is the type of project we are looking for, and it gets land use approval, then, at that point, maybe they need some gap financing to make the project a reality. That’s another place where we can come in with dollars to make something happen,” Doherty said.

Fasano said he would not be doing his project, which includes an outdoor food court, summer stage and multiple mixed-use commercial buildings, without the federal tax deferrals afforded by the Opportunity Zone designation and the state tweaking city zoning ordinances.

CRDA, is scheduled to see Fasano’s site plans on Jan. 3.

“My motivation for buying 25 properties (for the land for this project) was the Opportunity Zone,” said Fasano, whose development will be on South New York Avenue in the Uptown/Downtown Opportunity Zone.

Advanced Consulting Inc., a New York-based real estate firm, is talking with Florida-based property owner TJM to buy the former Atlantic Club Casino Hotel, which is in the Chelsea Opportunity Zone, and turn it into a non-gambling hotel and resort.

CRDA spoke to Advanced Consulting Inc. about the benefits of the Opportunity Zones in August, said Advanced Consulting company CEO Gem Lake. The company’s plans to buy the Atlantic Club became public last month.

“With the added value, especially with the (tax) credits they are giving to the corporations, we felt it was a win-win. Why wouldn’t we go ahead and push this even further,” Lake said. “This was the time, if anytime, to go ahead and put that huge investment into Atlantic City, and we think those incentives really helped push the tipping point.”

Philadelphia-based real estate developer Bart Blatstein owns properties in three of the four Opportunity Zones: Playground Pier in the Ducktown zone; Showboat Atlantic City Hotel and Garden Pier in the Uptown/Downtown zone; and several land parcels in the South Inlet zone.

“It’s a great opportunity for outside money to be invested in Atlantic City that, but for Opportunity Zone designation, would not flow to Atlantic City,” Blatstein said. “It’s in its early stages. All the regulations are not out yet. ... It can only be a positive and value-add to what’s already there in Atlantic City.”

Blatstein said he is waiting on the final regulations to be issued no later than the first quarter of next year to determine how best to utilize the Opportunity Zone designation.

Florida-based real estate developer Glenn Straub thinks he owns a total of 70 lots in the resort through his company, Polo North Country Club. According to state property records, 43 of those properties are in the South Inlet section of the city. South Inlet is one of the Opportunity Zones.

Straub said he is looking to sell off 20 of his 70 lots because they are three blocks away from the Boardwalk and of no value to him.

Even with the Opportunity Zones, Polo North Country Club is just not ready to dump any major money into the city until the Governor decides that the state will extract the resort from financial trouble, Straub said.

As of June, the city was nearly $450 million in debt.

“We will get around to it, but it’s not a high priority,” Straub said.

Wrestler's attorney suggests haircut was due to referee's tardiness

An attorney representing the parents of Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson released a statement Monday suggesting that Johnson’s impromptu hair cut was due in part to referee Alan Maloney’s tardiness.

Johnson, a junior, opted to have his dreadlocks cut off by Buena’s athletic trainer just before his 120-pound bout against Oakcrest last Wednesday rather than forfeit his match for not having the proper hair covering. The incident has caused national headlines and debate.

In most cases, such incidents are resolved hours before a meet.

However, parents Rosa and Charles Johnson said Maloney did not attend the weigh-in, according to the statement issued by family attorney Dominic Speziali, of Philadelphia on Monday.

Maloney did not return a request for comment.

“The scholastic wrestling rules clearly state that referees are to inspect wrestlers appearance and determine any rules violations prior to the start of the meet, typically during weigh-ins,” the statement reads in part. “The referee here was late to the meet and missed weigh-ins. When he did evaluate Andrew, he failed to raise any issues with the length of his hair or the need to wear a head covering.”

According to the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, a wrestler’s hair “shall extend no lower than the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back, shall not extend no lower than earlobe level on the sides, and shall not extend below the eyebrows in the front.

“Hair that does not conform to the rule shall be contained in a legal hair covering or the wrestler shall not compete. For hair coverings to be legal they must be worn under the headgear, or be part of the headgear, and be of a solid material that is not abrasive. ... Bandannas, or “do rags,” are also not legal headwear.”

The rule was changed a few years ago requiring the hair coverings to be attached to the headgear.

“As Andrew took to the mat to start his match, the referee examined and rejected the head covering he was wearing,” the lawyer’s statement read.

“In prior matches at a tournament the weekend before (the Robin Leff Tournament at Southern Regional), Andrew was permitted to wrestle without issue, a fact that his coaches conveyed to the referee when pleading on his behalf. Andrew then requested he be allowed to push his hair back as he did the weekend prior, but the referee again refused because ‘it wasn’t in its natural state.’”

Maloney, who has been a high school wrestling official for more than 40 years, told Buena coach George Maxwell just before Andrew Johnson’s match was to begin that he would either have to get a haircut or forfeit the bout. He then started the injury clock.

Maxwell reportedly argued to no avail.

Johnson opted to have athletic trainer Denise Fields give him a haircut in front of fans at Buena’s gym.

“As the trainer is cutting Andrew’s hair in the middle of the gym, the referee is behind them directing her to keep cutting until he was satisfied with the length,” Speziali said in the statement.

Johnson wound up winning a 4-2 decision in sudden overtime to help the Chiefs win the meet.

Fans, including his parents, gave him a standing ovation as he left the mat and was surrounded by his teammates.

“Andrew was visibly shaken after he and his coaches made every effort to satisfy the referee short of having his hair cut,” the statement read. “But, as captured on video, the unyielding referee gave Andrew 90 seconds to either forfeit his match or cut his hair. Under duress but without any influence from the coaching staff or the athletic trainer, Andrew decided to have his hair cut rather than forfeit the match.”

A video of the incident, taken by SNJ Today Sports Director Mike Frankel, sparked national outrage.

A number of athletes, celebrities, civil rights advocates and politicians, including Olympic champion wrestler Jordan Burroughs, Chance the Rapper, American film director Ava DuVernay and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy expressed their anger and frustration.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced Saturday that state authorities are investigating the incident through the Division on Civil Rights. Maloney will not be assigned to any matches until the matter has been reviewed.

“As this matter is further investigated, the family wants to be clear that they are supportive of Andrew’s coaches and the team’s athletic trainer,” Speziali said. “The blame here rests primarily with the referee and those that permitted him to continue in that role despite clear evidence of what should be a disqualifying race-related transgression.”

The Buena Regional Board of Education announced it will hold a special emergency meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss personnel matters.

The notice said the board will open the meeting and may proceed immediately into executive session. It was not known if the meeting is in connection with this incident.

The Buena Regional wrestling team is scheduled to compete at the Hunterdon Central Tournament on Thursday.