LOWER TOWNSHIP — First the bad news: Cape May County’s population is declining, and the people who have not left are getting older. Most of the available jobs are in one industry — tourism — and tend to be seasonal, leaving many unemployed or underemployed for months each year.
Those making a living make less than the state average, with the average household income 19 percent lower than New Jersey’s average of $76,000, economist Richard Perniciaro told Lower Township officials and others at a March 14 meeting at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal to kick off what’s being described as an aggressive effort to attract economic development to the township.
According to Jim Rutala, whose firm Rutala Associates is leading the economic development strategy for the township, the good news is that every level of government is working together to make the most of the township’s Opportunity Zone, which gives tax incentives to businesses investing there.
The zone includes the Cape May County Airport and surrounding areas, Rutala said. Late last year, Gov. Phil Murphy designated the airport and a long stretch of Bayshore Road, including a section of Middle Township, an Opportunity Zone, a designation since approved at the federal level. That means tax deferments for some circumstances and other incentives for investment. This month, Murphy announced a new grant program to help create plans for taking advantage of the Opportunity Zones in the state. A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is already helping fund Lower Township’s economic plan.
Couple that with millions in investments at the airport, including new infrastructure work and a new focus on economic development, and Rutala sees the Opportunity Zone designation as a chance to make real progress in the economy of southern Cape May County.
The airport has seen the rapid expansion of Cape May Brewing Co. and other fresh signs of life, but Rutala suggests the change is just beginning. However, he said nothing will happen without a focus on economic development.
Tim Sullivan, executive director of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, said the township is a step ahead of other municipalities in leveraging the Opportunity Zone because it is already working on a development strategy.
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Township Administrator Jim Ridgway cited numerous efforts at the airport either completed, planned or underway as a strong indication of future success.
“I think we’re rounding first base right now,” he said, suggesting the airport and the township could look much different in five years. He described the airport as one of the most fertile areas for commercial development in the township.
Most of the work he cited is not directly connected to the Opportunity Zone designation, including a proposal for a $15 million Aquatic Center at the 996-acre site. That project is awaiting word on funding from the county Open Space Board, he said.
Other investments include a $12.5 million capital plan by the Delaware River and Bay Authority and a $6 million tech village planned by the county. According to Ridgway, work there could be underway this summer. The county sees big potential at the airport, especially with drones.
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Cape May County spent $6 million on new roads and other improvements at the airport in recent years, and Ridgway also cited the centralized dispatch center at the township’s Public Safety Building, another multimillion-dollar investment at the site.
Rutala sees a number of possibilities for expanding the year-round economy in the short term. He cited offshore wind as a strong contender. New Jersey plans to massively expand the amount of electricity generated by wind power with the creation of large-scale offshore wind farms.
According to Rutala, there will need to be on-shore facilities for whichever company gets state approval, including offices and possibly helicopter pads. Boats carrying personnel and equipment will make regular trips to the wind farm, he said. The area near the Lower Township terminal of the Cape May-Lewes ferry could be ideal for that, and the offices could make the airport home, he said.