This Isn’t A Fair Shake
RULES and regulations can be pesky for small business owners, especially in a state like New Jersey, where taxes and fees abound. And if you happen to have a business on the Washington Street Mall, well you also have humungous rent payments to make, unless you happen to own your building. So, we have sympathy for the challenge facing new businesses which come to town — we ourselves operate a large retail store with rent payments that are tough to pay in the off-season. But try as we might (and we’ve been investigating this story for several weeks to get as many facts as we can), we’re having a hard time sympathizing with Stewart’s Root Beer.
Their shiny new restaurant, on the site of the former Atlantic Books, has been operating since May with at least 50 seats more than allowed per its mercantile license. Last month, we reported on the June meeting of the mall’s Business Improvement District, at which City Manager Bruce MacLeod said the city had “done everything it can” to correct the issue. More on that in a minute, but first, some background…
Theoretically, the more seats you have in your restaurant, the more people you’ll be bringing in to town, and the more parking congestion this creates. To offset the problem, the city established something called the Parking Trust Account about 20 years ago. (If you haven’t heard of this fund, don’t feel silly; neither had Deputy Mayor Jack Wichterman when we called to ask for an explanation.) According to Section 525-49E of the City Code Book, if a restaurant wants to increase its seating, it must pay into this account at a rate of $5,000 for every four additional seats. Some restaurants, like the Pilot House, have found expanding to be cost prohibitive because of this ordinance. Other restaurants on the mall, like Jackson Mountain Café, have forked over hefty sums of money to do just that. “It was a big chuck of change to add 48 seats to our upstairs,” manager Jeff Conrad told us. “I don’t know why the city would be making an exception to that rule now.”
It’s the same complaint we’ve heard from a number of restaurant owners on the mall — that the city is making an unfair exception, or at least delaying enforcement — with Stewart’s. “This situation is upsetting and frustrating,” said Martin Zarzycki, owner of Uncle Charlie’s ice cream and fellow seller of root beer floats. “We paid for the extra.” Some believe that the city has not, despite what Bruce MacLeod has said, done everything it can to correct a blatant snubbing of the law. Yes, the city has issued two verbal warnings to Stewart’s, says MacLeod, and issued two summonses to Stewart’s, one on June 18 and one on July 13, after these warnings were not heeded. And a court date has been scheduled for August 28.
But we called former mayor Jerry Inderwies, who said that MacLeod has the power to shut the place down (“He is the Chief Executive Officer of the City, so absolutely”), and what’s more, that this is what should be happening. “There are regulations, subscribed to by city council, that need to be adhered to,” Inderwies said. “Stewart’s should have been told to adhere to the ordinance, or closed down.” When we asked MacLeod about this, he said, “The city does have a right to hold a hearing for the revocation of a mercantile license,” but he wouldn’t say whether this is in the cards for Stewart’s. Just that the city will be recommending to the court that fines be assessed on a daily basis, although the final decision “rests with the judge.”
Another former mayor, Jerry Gaffney, finds this wait-and-see-what-the-court-says plan insufficient. And it does seem unusual, given that the city often acts quickly against city businesses which are in violation of local laws. Last year, when Jackson Mountain was found to be in violation for advertising with an illegal A-frame sign, they were told to remove the offending ad, or a fine would be issued the following day. And what about the Pilot House, who were issued a summons for something as minor as a chalkboard sign — one they’d received approval for. According to owner Deidre Hineline, the code enforcement officer simply hadn’t gotten that message, and she was forced to spend a day in court, within a week of being issued a summons (fast action indeed). “I don’t understand why there is such a delay in enforcement here,” Gaffney told us. “The law is the law. If they don’t conform to the laws, the code enforcement officer should be fining them every day. I don’t know why there’s a problem.”
Some have suggested the reason for the “problem” — that is, the alleged delayed enforcement — is that one of the three Stewart’s partners is Patrick Rosenello, president of the North Wildwood Council and a leading light in the county’s Republican organization, a guy who could presumably throw his weight around, if he so desired. Rosenello couldn’t be reached for comment on this, despite accusations that his political clout explains a seeming nonchalance in the face of all the negative attention. We sent a reporter into Stewart’s last week to count seats. She came up with 52 downstairs and another 48 upstairs. The maximum amount currently allowed per their mercantile licence is 48. And when our reporter tried to book a party for a 10-year-old’s birthday later this month, she was told Stewart’s can accommodate 60 people upstairs alone.
And yet, none of this fits with the picture of Rosenello painted by the building’s landlord, Joe Bogle of the Original Fudge Kitchen, who assured us that his own connection to the franchise ends with the landlord/tenant relationship, despite rumors he’s invested financially. “I’ve known Patrick for a long time,” Bogle said. “We serve together on the Wildwood Catholic school board. He is a family man of great integrity. Their being here is great for Cape May. The opposite of what you’ve heard is true; the city is making these guys dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’ in order to get this thing corrected.”
We did catch up with Rosenello’s partner, Sean Dougherty, who affirmed that they are in fact, “going through the required motions,” and that they “feel horrible” about the way this has played out because they “think so highly of the Cape May community.” As to why the business has continued to operate illegally, Doughery couldn’t comment, per his lawyer’s instructions.
Stewart’s have applied for the variance that would allow for the increased seating, Bogle said. He said it was his understanding that the reason for the violation was down to a couple of snafus, including mis-measuring — prior to Stewart’s taking over, the space had been occupied by Atlantic Books, and things like large bookshelves led to an underestimate of what the building could accommodate as a restaurant.
But Stewart’s architect, Richard Stokes of Philadelphia-based Stokes Architecture, told us, “It’s not the case that the building was measured incorrectly. The original plan was for 48 seats, because this is what’s allowed for under zoning.”
We don’t know for sure that the men behind the Stewart’s franchise decided they were going to pull a fast one and follow the logic that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, but it’s hard to believe that a business which counts as one of its partners a council member for a neighboring municipality didn’t know its way around mercantile licences.
We wish any new business the best of luck in Cape May, and that applies to Stewart’s, too, but they need to follow the law, and the city needs to enforce it. It’s frustrating enough to watch the city erect vinyl railings in the historic district while local business owners and residents are (rightly) prevented from doing so, but it’s a dereliction of duty to allow a business to operate with what looks like a blatant disregard for local laws while everyone else has to play by the rules.
Message to city hall… get it sorted.
An Evening With Grasso
LAST Saturday, for his opening night reception at SOMA NewArt Gallery, artist Victor Grasso wore a dapper Alfani suit and a black tie that read, in thin white letters, “Art is a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.” It took a couple of hours before we were close enough to read that, because for the better part of the three-hour evening, our view of the painter was blocked by throngs of adoring fans. (Gallery manager Steve Haas estimated a turnout of 300… enough to breeze through 1,000 plastic cups and 55 bottles of wine.) And rightfully so. Victor’s latest exhibition — “Somewhere, Beyond the Sea” – left us humbled.
“He’s one of the most progressive artists in the area,” Steve told us. “Victor’s got a dark side that intrigues people.” Dark side, indeed. The show includes four black and white self-portraits of Grasso as an old-time, sinister-looking mariner on the hunt for a beastly, “undulating” squid.
“But I don’t want people to see this darkness as negative,” Victor explained. “It’s not evil or depressing; I tend to think of it as sexy. Look at old comic books or films; the bad guy is always sexier. As a kid watching cowboys and indians, I always rooted for the indian, the underdog.” And besides, Victor explained, the “darkness” in each painting is tempered by just a little bit of quirkiness. “It’s like a black comedy,” he said. “Not necessarily funny, but there’s something just a bit off-kilter about it.”
Some of the night’s attendees were feeling a little “quirky” this evening, too.
Dave Clemans, in his 100-year-old cologne and Paul Frederick suit, may have looked like the picture of sophistication, but was quite feisty. We asked who he was wearing, and he said, “My wife, Chris.” We asked which painting spoke to him the most, and he said, “Well I’m not going to pick one with Victor in it, for goodness sake. He’s got six pictures of himself in one painting!” (“The Presentation of Leviathan” features a slew of Victors marveling over one slimy, tentacled sea monster.)
Speaking of jokesters, the covers that Victor has painted this year for our color issues are on display, too, and the one of a suspender-clad Jack Wright laboring over his typewriter garnered much attention. “The painting is great, but I’m wary of purchasing it, because I heard Jack comes with it,” Chris Clemans laughed. Others told the EZ editor that he looks older and more thoughtful in paint than in person. “It’s been one big insult fest,” Jack said. Even Victor, when asked which painting is his most treasured, told us: “They’re all my children… but it’s definitely not that one.”
Other paintings received nothing but accolades from the crowd, especially “Drink Me”, which features local student Bela Lotozo as Alice in Wonderland. “It’s my favorite,” said Bella’s sister Eliza, “although I’m biased.” But the 15 other people we spoke with who called this piece either “breathtaking” or “awe-inspiring” certainly aren’t.
“Nightcap”, a portrait of Victor and a baboon on a bar, was another hit. It’s possible that the monkey, according to artist Carol King Hood of Cape May Point, is a metaphor for life. “It’s a beast,” she told us, as we marveled over the brush strokes. “This has a lot of meaning to me.” But it was Jennifer Lawinski, a Brooklyn journalist, who ended up walking away with it. “I’ve been planning to start investing in some art,” she told us, “and I want this to be my first painting. It’s incredible.”
There were a lot of other out-of-towers who showed up for this show, including the cast of Cape May Stage’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which opens August 8. We spoke with actor Mark Campbell — “I love the ones with all of the various squids,” he said. “Victor is very Rasputin in those.” He loves the city, although he hasn’t had time to do much exploring, save for a few night walks along the beach. In fact, one of the EZ staffers joined members of the cast for a late trip to the beach this night, too (and possibly a swim… we’ll never tell).
Around nine, we braved the humidity to sit on the veranda of Congress Hall with Victor, and when we left the artist, he was enjoying a hard-earned Johnny Walker Blue alongside his lovely wife and muse, Alicia, and some close friends. As for the rest of you, “Somewhere, Beyond the Sea” will be at SOMA until September 3, so don’t miss out.
For The Birds
BIRD watching has never been our bag, so to speak. Your reporter’s had an impression of it as an art for those with the patience of a god and the wardrobe of, well, not a god… fanny packs and Teva sandals come to mind. But even we had a good time at the Monday bird watching walk hosted by the Cape May Bird Observatory. The enthusiasm of the binocular-bearing clan on Cape Island — the center of the known birding universe — is contagious. Before even leaving the parking lot, even skeptics find themselves asking: “You say that’s a red-winged blackbird overhead?”
The scenery helps. The two-hour, mile-long tour weaves throughout what used to be the town of South Cape May… “used to be” because the place was destroyed by the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944. Now, the area parallel to Sunset Boulevard is comprised of meadows, mudflats and low grasses protected by the Nature Conservancy. Walking down one of the former town’s reinforced gravel roads, we were surrounded by wetlands, sparkling with the reflection of the early morning sun, and hundreds of rose mallows, a vibrant pink member of the hibiscus family. There were so many of the latter, we felt a bit like Dorothy in that gorgeous poppy field (before she passed out).
About 30 of us headed out on this morning’s walk, and the ratio of birders to knowledgeable volunteers and CMBO naturalists was, according to leader Pete Dunne, 1.5 to 1. “On other tours, there might be a leader or two, but we’ve got a glut of talent,” he said. Then he instructed: “Snuggle up to your favorite,” so we tagged along behind a portly fellow by the name of Chuck Slugg.
Chuck was full of good birding trivia. “How much money worth of optics do you think there is here?” he asked. Considering the slew of expensive looking scopes, tripods, and binoculars being carted around, we’d been wondering the same thing. “About $4,000,” Chuck said. (But you can get a decent pair of binoculars for $100.) He also told us about the mute swans who were coming up on our right. They looked so serene, so beautiful, so… deadly? “It was a male swan who killed a guy on a golf course in Chicago,” Chuck whispered to us. And suddenly, birding seemed a whole lot more exciting than it had when the alarm went off that morning. We looked up the attack when we got home… turns out, it happened just last April. Apparently, swans are put on golf courses because they bully pesky geese out of the way but, sometimes, they get “downright aggressive.” More tidbits? “Queen Elizabeth I claimed ownership of all the swans in England,” Chuck continued, “and if you poached one, that was punishable by death. And each swan has 25,215 feathers. Give or take.” Chuck suspects that the folks who study these things have only counted one bird, because that figure pops up, no matter how many times you Google.
We spent the rest of the walk learning new things about birds we’d never seen before, and new things about birds we’ve been seeing all of our lives… like, there is no such thing as a seagull. “Would you call a bird a baygull just because he flew over the bay?” Chuck asked. Fair point. Those annoying scavengers (er, “very active foragers”) are actually called things like “Great Black-backed gulls,” which is a very distinguished name, we think, for a creature that steals your Cheetos.
Then there was our favorite species of the day, the American Oystercatcher, who “looks like he’s wearing a tuxedo and smoking a carrot.” This guy’s got a bill that’s “made to jam things,” according to Pete, who said the oystercatcher will spear it’s way into a clam or whack a mussel off a dock with the appendage. “Birds are specialized not to compete with one another,” said Pete.
And we loved watching an osprey fly over the ocean with the day’s catch — a fish who was having a really bad day — firmly grasped in its talons. “I had a friend who once caught a sea bass that had two osprey talons embedded in it’s back,” said a fellow birder. When it’s hunting, the osprey can dive so that it’s fully submerged and, obviously, doesn’t suffer coming up empty-handed lightly.
We saw 59 species altogether (Pete helped us with our checklist), but in all honesty, we had just as much fun watching our fellow humans. Like the sedimentologist who told us that he knows more about nearly every subject on the planet than mostly everyone else (uh, okay) except for birds… Pete Dunne’s got him beat on that. Then there was the guy who looked dressed for safari — hunter green shorts, a khaki button-up, black suspenders, a pack of water and other reinforcements, and a Crocodile Dundee-style hat. And then there was the middle-aged woman we overheard discussing “weed recipes.” (At first, we thought she meant the kind of brownies we’d experimented with as college co-eds, but then we realized she was pointing to some of the edible plants along our walk.)
Most surprising were all of the young folks who’d signed up… like the thirty-somethings from DC who’d gotten the birding bug after taking a trip to Patagonia. Or Robert Dube, a 28-year-old heavy equipment operator who comes here every other week from Wildwood for the exercise and also “because it’s great learning about different ecosystems.”
We were so busy watching other birders, we didn’t realize they might be watching us as well. “It’s hard to spot the birds through the binoculars, isn’t it?” said Chip Strong. He must have noticed your reporter’s binocular ineptitude, so Chip and his wife Adele assured us that it gets easier, before explaining they’d taken a day off from the homeless shelter where they volunteer in Philadelphia to come on this walk. They told us they’ve been in 40 different countries and on all seven continents looking for birds. “This is our vice,” Chip said. “We live cheaply. Our only splurge is going places.” And yet, they still refer to Cape May as the “mecca” of birding. “It’s energizing,” said Adele. “Cape May is to birding what the Smithsonian is to museums.”
So go ahead and give birdwatching a try, if you haven’t already (www.cmbo.org). It’s worth it, and it’s cooler than you may think. We only counted two fanny-packs.