Ideas, idle gossip and occasionally important odds ‘n’ ends… by Jack Wright
Everyone loves Cape May. That was the only consensus to emerge from last week’s tense public meeting to discuss convention hall. So if everyone loves Cape May how come there is a fundamental difference between two distinct schools of thought in this town?
There is the group which believes that the city should go ahead with the building as planned, even though it will have to be moved 24 feet toward Beach Avenue (because of state regulations) and will cost at least $3 million more than originally budgeted.
Then there is the group which wants the city to scrap this proposal and build a smaller convention hall on the existing footprint. This group won the day when the council voted, by a 3-2 majority, to go for the smaller building.
The decision was greeted by cheers, hoots and fist pumps by one group and by a feeling of severe disappointment, disbelief and concern by the other group.
Except… this isn’t the end of the story.
The people of Cape May voted by a majority of around two to one for the larger hall in a referendum in November, 2008. And it looks like the people are going to get a chance to either underline that decision, or to show that the mood of the town has changed.
Just as the group which was campaigning for the smaller building threatened a referendum if the vote didn’t go its way, the other side has hired an attorney and is proceeding to compile a petition in order to put the referendum on the ballot this November.
Some of you may read this with a very heavy heart – not ANOTHER delay!
It’s a fair point. And yet… this is the most important decision the city has had to make in decades. This new building will be a vital part – most likely THE most vital part – of the city’s tourism infrastructure of the future.
To those who say we should just build the damn thing and get on with it, I think, with respect, that you’re under-estimating the importance of this building.
Let’s get the logistics out of the way first. The building as planned is ready to go. The drawings are done, the construction bids are in. If this building got the go-ahead in a November referendum then the construction should be able to begin several months later.
The construction of a smaller building (let’s call it Plan B), on the other hand, would necessitate new drawings from the architect and engineer, approval from the state (although this wouldn’t take as long as it did to get the CAFRA permit for the current plan), and then the city would have to put the building out to bid. It’s hard to imagine construction would be able to begin until the spring of next year, around the same time as Plan A.
And, of course, there are extra costs involved with beginning the project from scratch. It’s unrealistic to presume that the construction of a smaller building is going to cost significantly less than the building that’s already designed.
But that’s not the most important point. The building as planned has the potential to bring in a great deal more revenue than Plan B, simply because it will offer more seating capacity, more rooms, more retail, a larger restaurant.
There are some who like to compare this plan to what happened in the Wildwoods, where a great hunk of a center was built, with the aim of attracting major conventions. There is no comparison. I think it was a mistake to even call this projection a convention hall. Instead, the city should have called it a civic center. There is no plan to attract large groups to come here – it simply wouldn’t happen and it wouldn’t feel like a good fit for charming old Cape May.
Instead, the city’s plan was/is to build a center which would provide world-class facilities for the non-profit groups who host some wonderful events – the jazz festival, the music festival, the film festival, the fledgling singer-songwriter festival, the Audubon weekend, and the Victorian Week events – as well as amenities for locals and visitors to enjoy, from roller skating to Kiwanis Club pancake breakfasts.
A lot of thought (there have been seven public meetings) went into how this building would best serve Cape May – its residents and its visitors. I think the design is inspiring and the building has such remarkable flexibility that the local gardening club could organize a meeting of 20 people at the same time as jazz great Wynton Marsalis was entrancing 1500 people in the great hall, with the backdrop of the Atlantic on view through the dramatic wall of windows.
Remember, too, that the great hall could be divided into smaller portions. Even if Cape May never managed to attract 1500 people for one event, the hall would still be very functional. Some people have pointed out that the old convention hall only ever filled to capacity on one occasion. I can’t say I’m surprised. With mediocre acoustics, squeaky-bum seating and a thoroughly drab interior it wasn’t the kind of place to make you rush out to buy tickets.
The new hall would undoubtedly attract a higher class of talent.
Another argument against the larger building is the fear that the sea wall would be compromised by the construction of the foundations – a couple retired architects and engineers have spoken about their concerns. We’re lucky to have such knowledgeable people in our community but some of the stuff I heard sounded a little like scare tactics and I would defer to the US Army Corps of Engineers, who gave their blessing to the new design, and also to engineers who are not retired but working with all of the benefits that the latest technologies provide. Furthermore, I understand that cranes positioned on the beach would be able to carry out construction without disruption to the sea wall. More on this in a later issue (no, this is NOT the last column on this subject).
I want to go back to the first sentence I wrote – everyone loves Cape May. But as we all know, there are many kinds of love. There are those who don’t want Cape May to change one bit, and then there are others who feel that the city has to constantly evolve in order to continue attracting visitors, who are the lifeblood of this city.
Both of these groups love Cape May. I’m not disputing that. But what I WOULD dispute is the notion that the weight of a person’s opinion is directly in proportion to the number of years that person has vacationed and/or lived in Cape May. It’s trotted out so often as a badge of honor that it’s quickly become cliché. Truly, I think people have to earn the right to be a good citizen. It doesn’t simply come with time served.
If, to use an extreme example, you’ve been lying on your favorite Cape May beach or sitting on your porch for 40 years and you’ve never given a cent of your money or a minute of your time to a community group or local non-profit, then won’t attach much weight to your opinion – especially if your sole motivation seems to be keeping your taxes down (which, in Cape May, are consistently among the 10 lowest of all the 566 New Jersey municipalities, by the way).
There are some people who think the larger hall will somehow change the character of Cape May. This seems, to me, like an alarmist point of view. It makes no sense. There are houses opposite Poverty Beach with larger facades than the planned convention hall project.
And to those folks who regard Cape May as a haven for them to relax in the summer, away from the hustle of their primary homes, whether they be in San Francisco or the Main Line of Philadelphia, I would suggest that this city needs to be more than a bedroom by the sea. It needs a healthy cultural community of its own – for the benefit of visitors AND residents.
There will be more to say on this subject in the weeks and months to come…
My heart goes out to Mickey Chew and Kate Delany, a popular young couple who are having a torrid time. Mickey, the son of CMPD officer Rusty and realtor Dagmer Chew, was diagnosed with a brain tumor after suffering a seizure at the weekend. Mickey, an avid surfer who is in his 20s, has apparently been the picture of health his whole life, so you can imagine the shock felt by his family and friends. See page 35 for details of a benefit concert. If you pray, say one for Mickey and Kate. If you don’t, send out some good karma. And either way it won’t hurt if you patronize Big Wave Burritos, which Mickey and Kate opened in May. The couple don’t have health insurance and they can use all the help they can get.
On the same sad note, I just discovered that another well-known local, Donnie Piacentine, is recovering from surgery after suffering a broken neck after diving into a pool. I hope you also make a full recovery, Donnie.