WILDWOOD CREST — It’s not about the money, Mayor Don Cabrera said about an effort to bring a liquor license to his town. It’s about keeping businesses in Wildwood Crest.
Standing at Cardinal Road and New Jersey Avenue, in the heart of the borough’s retail district, Cabrera points out a series of vacant properties. Some will soon reopen for the summer. Others have large “Available” signs in their windows.
Cabrera believes allowing a restaurant to serve beer and wine could be part of a renaissance, bringing tourists and fresh investment to the retail area. Otherwise, he sees a possibility his municipality could become a bedroom community, where residents and visitors stay the night but leave town for dinner and entertainment.
As mayor, Cabrera can’t bring a liquor license to Wildwood Crest. The move would need the voters’ support in a referendum before the proposal could move forward, he said.
In fact, he said, voters would have to move to get the proposal on the ballot. He said it would require 212 signatures from registered voters to proceed. Cabrera has invited residents to speak out about the proposal at Borough Hall meetings. The next one is set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at 6101 Pacific Ave.
Andrew Cyhan, owner of Homestyle To Go take out and catering at 6107 New Jersey Ave., plans to be there, hoping for more details on the proposal.
“I’m on the fence about it,” he said. If it helps the business district, he said, it could be a positive step. But he believes the borough could already be doing more for local businesses and fears if the license ends up going to a large hotel on the beachfront, it would only end up helping whoever gets the license.
Cabrera said the borough could use its zoning laws to limit the license to the downtown. But the move, if approved, could still bring alcohol sales to Crest hotels. Under state law, a motel or hotel with more than 100 rooms would automatically be eligible for a license if the municipality allowed them. There are six in the borough that meet the criteria, Cabrera said.
On social media, opinions seem divided between those who fear losing some of what makes Wildwood Crest special and others who believe it to be an important part of keeping a restaurant scene alive in a community.
Cabrera said he has heard complaints from people who fear the proposal. But he said he has also heard from restaurant owners who say they cannot stay in business without being able to serve. One resident suggested it’s easy enough to cross the border to get alcohol, so the Crest doesn’t need a license.
That could be said about any service or product, Cabrera said. Residents could look to Wildwood for lunch, for a real estate agent or an attorney.
“The next thing you know, we have no businesses,” he said.
Bringing a successful restaurant to New Jersey Avenue as an anchor could lead to a new retail store next to it, and a coffee shop next to that, Cabrera argued. With renewed interest in the downtown, he said, the borough could invest in infrastructure like bump-out curbs for pedestrians and clear the way for café-style outside dining on the sidewalks.
Standing in front of his business as he gets ready for the season, Cyhan said the borough could already be taking some of those steps, with or without a liquor license.
At Crest Hardware, owner Tony Leonetti described the move as long overdue. A city commissioner in neighboring Wildwood, he said Wildwood Crest should join other beach communities.
Wildwood Crest has been a dry town for close to 80 years, one of a few towns in Cape May County where alcohol cannot be sold. For Ocean City, the ban on alcohol sales was part of the original city charter. In 2012, voters there shot down a proposal to allow diners to bring their own wine or beer to restaurants by a margin close to 2-1. This year, West Cape May left that exclusive club, auctioning its first liquor license for $480,000, a big number in a town with a $2.6 million budget this year.
But for Cabrera, that revenue boost would not be the most important element. He said he did not want to sound arrogant, but Wildwood Crest is in great financial shape.
“It would be nice, but it’s not needed,” he said of the boost to municipal revenue. “It’s more of an economic development movement.”
He said the 1940 referendum to make the Crest dry was motivated by a worry about a third license coming to town, in addition to the two already there. For most summer visitors, he said, the distinction between Wildwood, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and the Diamond Beach section of Lower Township is unclear. The municipalities share the same island, but each has its own government and its own rules. Even some locals are confused by the Crest Tavern, which is over the border in Lower Township and has its own license.
Borough officials say the local police, the Tourism Development Commission and other organizations are reviewing the idea.