Atlantic City’s vulnerability to flooding may present an opportunity, some officials have long argued, to make the resort an East Coast hub for hands-on research on sea level rise.

The first hints of the idea became reality Monday.

By next winter, Stockton University wants to open a 4,000- to 8,000-square-foot incubator on the first floor of the school’s residential building in Atlantic City, grant writer Jim Rutala announced at the second Jersey Shore Beach Report conference at the university’s Atlantic City campus.

The “incubator” will house offices for members of the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, nonprofits, Stockton researchers and others looking at ways to fortify coastal communities from higher tides.

Along the Jersey Shore, the Army Corps projects more than $1.6 billion in annual damage in the future from storms and flooding, and water levels are expected to increase by 1.15 to 4.02 feet by 2080.

“We all work in our own silos,” Rutala said. “Given the magnitude of this effort, having everyone work together is smart.”

The university has already expressed hopes of building a larger 60,000-square-foot Marine and Environmental Science Center that would include classrooms, laboratories and meeting spaces with access to the ocean and bays.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill opened a similar center, called the Coastal Resilience Institute of Excellence, with a $20 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

A feasibility study for the Stockton project is being funded by the Economic Development Authority and will be completed in August. The project’s design, permitting and construction could take at least three-and-a-half years.

Rutala presented a list of 11 potential spots for the $41 million facility, from vacant land in the South Inlet to areas scattered throughout the city already owned by Stockton. The site of Bader Field, the now-defunct municipal airport on the Black Horse Pike, is also being considered.

“We can’t wait 40 months,” Rutala said before detailing plans for the soon-to-launch incubator, which may be funded by a federal grant. “This has to happen now.”

A sense of urgency to combat sea level rise was evident throughout the hour-long event.

Dr. Stewart Farrell, director of Stockton’s Coastal Research Center in Port Republic, presented a slideshow outlining how Hurricane Sandy in 2012 ate away at several beaches up and down New Jersey’s coast.

In Mantoloking, Ocean County, for instance, the storm tore apart houses and the pieces were lapped up by the ocean.

But dune projects undertaken before the storm helped save some from extensive damage, he said, including Ocean City, where a 1992 dune project helped grow the beach to 465 feet over the following 20 years.

“They’ve not put another grain of sand out there since 1992,” Farrell said. “Sand has accumulated there.”

Jetties, which can trap sand, may make sense moving forward in areas of some shore towns, he said. In Brigantine, jetties on the northern end capture sand and could be shipped to places that are eroding.

In 2006, Avalon began moving sand from mid-island beaches, where the shoreline is naturally expanding, to its northern beaches, a hotspot for erosion. This year, Farrell said, the borough borrowed 50,000 cubic yards from its abundant beaches.

“This is where the sand goes,” he said. “We’re saying ‘Maybe we can borrow some of that and put it back and save a few bucks pumping sand from offshore.”

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe stressed the importance of such flood mitigation efforts.

She rounded off recent moves from Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to combat climate change and sea level rise, noting ambitious offshore wind energy goals and the state re-entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

“This is a real vulnerability not just for the economy of our shore but for the vulnerability of our people and communities that live on the shore,” McCabe said. “In times of climate change, we can expect to see (Hurricane) Sandy come again under another name. We think about that a lot.”

Contact: 609-272-7258 Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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