Other than a sand-caked Beach Avenue, Cape May looked untouched in the aftermath of Sandy. Aleksey Moryakov
The Convention Hall Storm
IN THE immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, people here felt lucky that one of the worst storms to ever batter the east coast had left this island pretty much unharmed. It’s only been in the last week that the taxpayers of this city have realized just HOW lucky they were… given that the $11 million shining jewel on the promenade called Cape May Convention Hall hasn’t had flood insurance since it hosted its first event, on May 25.
This puts into even sharper focus the rather modest sand barrier that appeared on Cape May’s beach, behind Convention Hall, a couple days before Sandy was due to hit, along with the two dozen sandbags piled at the building’s two rear doorways. At the time, it looked like a token, almost farcical attempt at fending off such a feared storm. Now, knowing that the city would have had to pay for every dollar of damage sustained by flooding if Sandy had hit Cape May square on (as was once forecast), well, words fail us about how feeble an attempt that was to ward off what could have been a financial catastrophe.
So we know that the city does not have flood insurance, nearly six months after the building opened (for those keeping count). HOW do we know that? Only because a resident called Charlie Hendricks received a tip-off from a friend in the wake of the storm. Charlie then emailed City Manager Bruce MacLeod, on Friday, November 2, asking if it was true that the city’s most prized asset was indeed lacking in flood insurance. Hendricks asked for a response by the following Monday, but he heard nothing, which isn’t a surprise. MacLeod often ignores emails from us, too, especially when the subject is a pointed question about city business.
But Hendricks got his chance to ask the question in person, at a city council meeting on Wednesday, November 7. “I cannot answer in the affirmative,” was how MacLeod responded. And there you have it, folks, a little indicator of what it is like to deal with Cape May’s City Manager, a fellow who has a deep aversion to straight talking, a man who gets so tied up in bureaucratic claptrap that by the time he’s finished talking, both he and the questioner have a hard time remembering what the question actually was.
The meeting got a little heated after that, with two more residents (Kevin Soler and Hendricks’ wife, Patricia) losing their patience with both MacLeod and Mayor Ed Mahaney, who said that he had not been aware of the lack of flood insurance until October 29, the day Sandy wrecked much of the Jersey Shore.
Much as we would love to give Mayor Mahaney the benefit of the doubt, we find it close to impossible to believe him, for two reasons. One: Based on past experience, we don’t regard him as an especially honest man (and judging by last week’s election result, at least half of Cape May’s electorate agrees with us). Two: He is so hands-on, particularly with regard to Convention Hall business, that it is unfathomable to imagine that he had no clue the property was so exposed. In fact, Mahaney is such a control freak that the man the city hired to run Convention Hall, Mike Whipple, threatened to quit his job on a couple occasions because he was tired of the constant meddling from the mayor and finally DID leave his job a few weeks back, though the news of that, along with the flood insurance debacle, was kept quiet in the runup to the November 6 election.
Macleod told the council meeting that the city had decided to apply for flood insurance in July (no mention as to why they didn’t lock this up before the building even opened), but that FEMA had so far refused to approve their application, though he didn’t say why, and Mayor Mahaney added that he expected approval would be granted promptly.
There has been conjecture around town that the reason the city’s application has not been approved is because Convention Hall’s pilings were set too low and that the building does not meet the strict FEMA requirements for a beachfront property. We say “conjecture” because getting the real story from City Hall is never straightforward and, in the absence of clear communication, the inevitable byproduct is conjecture.
Exit Zero goes to press on a Monday, which fell on a public holiday this week, so there was no one at City Hall to comment. However, we did speak to the Convention Hall architect, Martin Kimmel, of Philadelphia firm Kimmel-Bogrette. His answer only added to the confusion. Kimmel said, “I’m now aware that there was an error in the way the application [to FEMA] was submitted. The building does, in fact, meet requirements.” He believes that the application, which was filed on behalf of the city by its civil engineering company, Fralinger, wrongly stated that the building’s floor level was around 9.5 feet, which would have put it well below the minimum requirement for a building on the beachfront. But Kimmel says that number refers to the elevation of a concrete utility pit, which lies below the actual floor of Convention Hall, which is, he says, more than 15 feet above sea level. He said that when the city contacted FEMA to inform them about the mistake, they were told it would not be a problem.
“I hope this is a tempest in a teapot,” he said, adding that he first heard there was a problem from the city just after Hurricane Sandy hit, and that it had been figured out “within 24 hours”.
We were confused by his response. If it was, as it appears, a simple case of the engineer writing down the wrong floor elevation in a FEMA application, then why were Bruce MacLeod and Mayor Mahaney so flustered by this issue at the council meeting last week? Why didn’t they offer the same explanation as Martin Kimmel?
“That’s a good question,” said Kimmel. “I don’t know the answer to that.”
A special city meeting was being held on Wednesday of this week (November 7), to discuss the issue, so you will be hearing more about this story.
In the meantime, if you happen to be one of the absentee voters who hasn’t yet cast a vote in the Cape May mayoral election, you still have until November 18 to do so. Last time we checked, Mayor Mahaney was ahead of challenger Rusty Chew by 11 votes.
We are disappointed that half the electorate still consider Mayor Mahaney fit for office. Consider this… he regarded the completion of Convention Hall as the defining achievement of his reign, yet here are the issues facing it…
1. A couple years ago, the city paid $54,000 to Mahaney’s alma mater, Temple University, for a Convention Hall business plan that still hasn’t materialized, despite regular prodding from the Taxpayers’ Association of Cape May.
2. Ask any concert or marketing expert (we asked a few) and they will likely tell you that the building is lacking in facilities. “It has no breakout rooms, which are essential for business conferences, the bathrooms are woefully underbuilt, and the kitchen is a joke,” said one local marketing professional. “As a venue, it’s just four walls — it comes with no sound or lighting system. They’re going to have a tough time putting on concerts there,” said a promoter.
3. The building has been operating without a marketing director since the departure of Mike Whipple, and has no dedicated website or any meaningful presence on the city’s own website, which still ranks as one of the poorest municipal sites we have ever seen.
4. As we previously reported, the building has been operating with only a temporary Certificate of Occupancy since it opened, and at one stage appears to have even been without THAT for a couple days.
5. The small matter of flood insurance.
Now, if Cape May was following the proper form of government, the failures above could not be blamed on a mayor, since the City Manager is supposed to be the CEO of this city, but as we have outlined regularly (okay, exhaustively) in this column over the last few years, Mayor Mahaney has been defying the Faulkner Act and running the city, with MacLeod, in effect, answering to him.
If it turns out that the lack of insurance really IS down to a simple (if inexcusable) mistake by the city’s engineering company, then we can (once again) appreciate how lucky we got on the night of October 29, but in the meantime, there should be consequences. How the building was allowed to open without flood insurance, and why it is still operating without a permanent Certificate of Occupancy points to a major failure in the administration of this city. Is it entirely Bruce MacLeod’s fault? Should he be reprimanded, or even removed from office, for allowing the city’s taxpayers to be put in such a perilous position and for overseeing a project which has been beset with so many problems?
We don’t know, but what we DO know is that the city invites some of these problems by its aversion to clear and honest communication. Mahaney and MacLeod seem constantly on the defensive, obfuscating the issues and sometimes deliberately misleading the public. The end result is that a great number of the city’s taxpayers have lost faith in them.
We realize this plea might fall on deaf ears, but we urge the administration to try and advocate a policy of ACTUAL transparency. It’s amazing how refreshing that can be. Start telling the truth to the people who pay your salaries and who keep the city running — the taxpayers. We have a feeling that Mayor Mahaney’s administration is going to be under a great deal of scrutiny from the public, and from those of us in the media who believe in holding those in office accountable. Watch this space.
Our Local Heroes
We heard from a friend in Brooklyn this week who has been out of power for 13 days following Hurricane Sandy. We know of others, a little closer to home in Seaside Heights, who haven’t been allowed access to their island since Sandy hit shore on October 29. On a recent drive up the Parkway, we witnessed hordes of people lined up on foot at gas stations just north of Toms River, where petrol has been rationed. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it countless times — we got lucky, and boy is Cape May grateful. So grateful, the town’s citizens have been working hard off to organize relief efforts, including Cape May Donates, spearheaded by local Courtney Poole, who stopped by on Sunday to give us an update.
“It’s been miraculous,” said Courtney, who has been working the phones until about midnight daily since November 1, in order to determine how to best distribute donations. “I started calling around to emergency management offices in areas that were hit hardest, like Bay Head and Lavallette,” she said. “But they were so damaged, a lot of these offices weren’t even able to respond. It was mayhem. Eventually, we reached out to police departments and town halls in order to find out where the central hubs were, and we discovered one in Toms River and one in Belmar.”
After establishing drop-off points at Villas Liquor Store, the Cape May and West Cape May fire halls, and Whale’s Tale, Courtney reached out to the community, asking for donations of clothes, nonperishable foods, and personal hygiene items that would be taken north, thanks largely to the generosity of Seashore Food Distributors, the Lobster House, Lower Township municipality and a number of individuals – including Michael Eck of Cape May Fire Department, who spent his vacation volunteering — who offered up their trucks for transport.
When these northern towns became overwhelmed with donations and their residents began relocating to hotels in Wildwood, Cape May Donates redirected efforts here. On Saturday, supplies were brought to Cape May fire house by “hundreds of people” and sorted by approximately 60 volunteers. “Fire Chief Jerry Inderweis ran such a great day,” Courtney said. “Everyone’s attitudes were amazing.” People came from Delaware and Pennsylvania to lend a hand; Cape May Beach Patrol Lieutenant Harry Back, who lives in Binghampton, New York, drove to Cape May to support the efforts. Now, the huge amount of donations collected are being organized at the Tomwar Hangar at Cape May County Airport.
And there is a LOT of stuff there. According to Lesley Finneran, Courtney’s partner in the relief effort and a manager at Whale’s Tale, cash donations are probably the best way to go from here on out. “That should be the shift,” she told us. “Each person is only in need of one new toothbrush, for example, and I don’t know how many thousands we’ve received, so this is no longer the most articulate way of helping. We’re actually tripping over stuff at the Whale’s Tale.” Lesley recommends making a donation to a reputable outlet, including Habitat for Humanity, The Human Society, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. You can bring your offering to the Whale’s Tale, which will match the total, up to $5,000.
“There were a lot of people who acted independently and did things to help,” said Lesley. “It’s been inspiring.” There’s too many of these selfless volunteers to name here, but we will single out Jennifer and Paul Negro of Tisha’s restaurant who, along with their staff, reached out to some of their purveyors in order to provide meals for the folks who’ve relocated to Wildwood. Jennifer told us, “Kelly’s Products in Cape May Court House donated the to-go containers, West Side Market donated pasta, Acme donated the bags we put them in, and Tony’s Produce provided the fruit. Paul made chicken escarole soup and pasta bolognese, and we included water and fruit and silverware. It’s been an eye-opening experience, to see just how lucky we really were. The people who’ve been affected, that’s the demographic who come to visit Cape May, the people who help us live. And now, we can help them out, too.”
Then there’s Debbie Gallagher, manager of Henry’s Landmark Jeweler on the mall. She was in Ocean City to witness storm victims carrying “every stick of furniture” from their damaged homes. “The face of one woman in particular is burned into my brain,” she told us. “My heart was breaking.” Debbie came up with the idea to donate 10 percent of every purchase made at Henry’s to the Atlantic City Food Bank and Emergency Relief Fund for at least 30 days. Other local businesses – Whale’s Tale, Island Grill, Great White Shark, Swain’s, The Guardian, Maryanne’s Jewelry, Marlene’s Gifts, Madame’s Port, the Ugly Mug, Good Scents, Cape May on Canvas, Love the Cook, Cape Atlantic Books, White, Cape May Fish Market, Across the Way, Elizabeth Arden — are following in Henry’s footsteps. “Maybe people won’t feel so weird about spending their money after such a terrible thing if they know it’s going to help out those who need it,” Debbie said.
People can also feel better about booking hotel reservations, thanks to Cape Resorts Group, which has created the For Jersey, For Shore program because “it could have been us, too,” said joint managing partner Curtis Bashaw. For the month of November, CRG will donate 4% of the value of all hotel reservations made for 2012 and 2013 to Governor Chris Christie’s Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.
Finally, see page 47 for the details of a benefit this Saturday at Convention Hall.
Jazzing Up The Town
“Artistically amazing” is how Michael Kline summed up last weekend’s inaugural Exit 0 International Jazz Festival, which he produced. “The music was greater than anything Cape May has ever seen,” said Kline, referencing featured jazz legend and three-time Grammy award winner Ramsey Lewis. Kline told us that he was approached by Lewis after his performance, at Convention Hall on Saturday. “He hugged me and complimented me on the production. He was really genuine in expressing that,” said Kline, who admitted to being nervous about the festival’s debut in the days leading up to Hurricane Sandy.
Kline credits his love for music as the motivation for putting together the festival. He works in music as a jazz booking agent and spent many years in the home of jazz, New Orleans. He told us that he chose Cape May as the location for the festival because he saw it as a great place to have a world-class jazz festival. He wanted to give particular thanks to Eliza Lotozo, Wendy Guiles, Brian Lee, Chuck and Hilary Prichard, and all the volunteers for their help with the event. He also gave a shout-out to Spy Boy Bob, who wishes to remain anonymous. “He knows who he is,” was all Kline would tell us of this mystery man. When asked whether the festival would be back next year, Kline said that “the 2013 International Jazz Festival will be the best we’ve ever seen.”
Wawa Property Finally Sold
IT’S been a sad sight… the black hole on Bank Street where the Wawa used to be. But now the property has finally been sold, to the aforementioned Rusty Chew and wife Dagmer, who will be moving their HomeStead real estate company from Broadway to the center of town. Rusty told us that settlement will be happening later this month, and that they were now in the process of trying to find a buyer for their Broadway property. “Yes, there has been some interest,” he told us, “but nothing we can talk about yet.”