The 34-foot Blue Spruce evergreen was a sight to behold at last Friday’s tree-lighting at Congress Hall. More pictures next week. Aleksey Moryakov
LAST Friday, we were invited to a meeting of Cape May Taxpayers’ Association, where the mood was one of utter frustration. It’s a feeling rooted in August of 2009, when the city announced it would be paying Temple University $53,000 to come up with a business and management plan for the $10.5 million Convention Hall. “We’ve asked this administration nicely, we’ve asked them politely, and we’ve asked them repeatedly to let us in on what this plan is,” said TPA’s Vice President Dennis Crowley. But after each request, despite the fact that the building has been operational since May, the TPA continues to hear nothing from any member of council. “As far as we’re concerned,” Crowley said, “there is no business plan.” Which is a problem that, according to this organization, has a lot of “canker sores” all over it.
To begin with, there’s the recent departure of Mike Whipple, the man in charge of marketing Convention Hall. It’s a departure many in town attribute to Mayor Ed Mahaney’s inability to relinquish control and let Whipple do his job. But no matter what facilitated his departure, the the ramifications have not been obvious. “It doesn’t show,” Crowley said. “There is no difference.” Bottom line: not having a person to implement a marketing plan doesn’t matter so much if there is no plan to implement. In the meantime, the town’s greatest asset sits woefully underutilized.
Then again, it’s difficult to market a building when its costs are a matter of mystery. There is no fee structure published, at least not that the TPA is aware of. However, they do know it would cost their organization $150 to rent the building’s community room for an hour-long meeting… they checked on this when their usual spot, the city hall auditorium, wasn’t an option due to construction. “The original plan for the community room was for it to be available to any non-profit who wanted to use it,” Crowley said. “It’s an insult to charge us for a building we’ve already paid for.”
The Temple study was also supposed to yield a detailed summary of the hall’s operating costs. “It was avoided in the early stages of building because it was said to be premature,” Crowley said. “But you can’t tell us the cost projections for operation are premature now. The building is open for god’s sake.”
Which brings us to the latest canker sore: the lack of flood insurance. Crowley contends that had Convention Hall’s operating costs been fleshed out as they should have been, “someone might have said, ‘Wait a minute. Where is the flood insurance? Isn’t that part of the operating costs?’”
For all of the above, this publication been coming down pretty hard on Mayor Mahaney and City Manager Bruce MacLeod. But we agree with the TPA that at some point, council needs to be held accountable. “If the mayor is out of control,” Crowley said, “then council let him get that way. Let’s suppose this is an ocean liner, where council is the crew. If the first officer notices the captain steering into an Italian island some place to wave to his girlfriend, shouldn’t he turn to the captain to say, ‘Maybe we should be changing course?’”
And it’s the entire council that’s been ignoring for the last six years or so the TPA’s proposal, called Funding the Future, regarding the creation of a broad-based, comprehensive tourism utility. The purpose of the tourism utility in its current form, according to the relevant ordinance, is to “track, account for, and properly budget and pay for the management and operation of Convention Hall.” But this is “defective on its face,” says Crowley, as Cape May does not have enough money or the capacity to raise enough money to provide for services citizens want.
“We proposed a tourism utility which would identify the cost centers of everything we pay for, what it’s used for, how much it costs, and what the personnel and operating implications are,” he said. This kind of breakdown exists within the beach utility, and within the water and sewer utility, but the “pathetic excuse” for a tourism utility doesn’t allow people to see where their money is being spent. What’s more, it “simply reappropriates, or shifts around, existing revenues within the budget to pretend that its creating utility.”
It’s a smokescreen, Crowley says, owing to the bean-counting abilities of City Manager MacLeod, a “budgeteer,” as Crowley calls him. “The thing you have to fight through incessantly,” he said, “is Bruce’s ability to put together a budget in which the numbers in one column match the numbers in another. That’s not budgeting; that’s spin. The budget is archaically done. It hangs together because the weight on one side equals the weight on another. Whatever deficiencies exist, they’re all spun away.”
One of the greatest examples of this spin, according to the TPA, is council’s penchant for falling back on property tax increases when they can’t come up with a more efficient way of raising funds to, say, run Convention Hall. “It’s like having a leaky water heater,” Crowley said. “Instead of fixing it, they just keep adding more water.”
Council is able to get away with the increases for a couple of reasons. First of all, Cape May has one of the lowest municipal tax rates in the state and so many of the constituents — especially the great number of people who live out-of-state and rent their properties out, as well as those who live in Victorian Towers, on the Coast Guard Base, or in federally-subsidized housing and pay no property taxes at all — see no red flags. “I’ll be candid with you,” Crowley said. “It’s hard to speak fervently on behalf of a constituency that doesn’t give a crap, pardon my French.”
But here’s why you should care: Taxes here may be low compared to other places, but it’s the principle of the thing that matters. “The prices of the ratables in this town are excessively high; so high, that the sale of one house four years ago triggered a reevaluation,” said Crowley. “The average sale prices are dropping; we’re not going to be a big, rich town in 10 years, but we have this trumped-up property tax rate everyone says is beautiful.” And it’s the indirect repercussions of these increases that are most disturbing. Keep raising taxes, and senior citizens will continue moving elsewhere, the TPA says. Young families cannot afford to move in and start businesses, and if they DO manage to buy a home, it makes sense for them to rent it out, at least part-time, so that those high taxes become a write-off. What you end up with is a town that’s a “one square mile condo project.” According to the Taxpayers’ Association, Cape May is dying. “In the 1950 Census,” Crowley said, “the population here was 3,607. In 2010, the population here was 3,607, exactly the same. Every other town in Cape May County has experienced population growths ranging from 20 to 350 percent. This town is not the Norman Rockwell version of Cape May people want to believe it is.”
And when you put it that way, it makes that lack of a business plan especially cringe-worthy, doesn’t it? We still believe in the Norman Rockwell vision of Cape May, but in order for us to start moving in this direction, people have to get involved.
So far, TPA says they’ve been “stonewalled” by the current administration. “The government here doesn’t want to know what you think,” Crowley said. “They want to do what they want to do, and get it done before anyone realizes they did it. It’s driving this whole town down.”
But not forever, at least not if the citizens of Cape May decide this isn’t the way their town should operate. TPA meetings are held the third Friday of every month at 1pm in the City Hall Auditorium, and the group is currently seeking board members.
Why not turn up, get informed, and help get this city back on track?
Let There Be Light
THERE were “oohs” and “aahs” coming from the crowd — over 1,000 strong — at Congress Hall last Friday night during their fifth annual tree-lighting ceremony, and rightfully so. The attendees of this Winter Wonderland celebration experienced a miniature New York City by the sea. The 34-foot-tall Blue Spruce on the lawn, which cast a moon’s shadow on awed spectators and squealing children, felt reminiscent of Rockefeller Center. The 60×30-foot village of local vendors next to the pool, lit by two in-the-water firepits, is a Union Square of sorts. And the trees for sale along the veranda, benefitting Cub Scout Troop 73, evokes a mini Greewich Village. But the energy of the Wonderland crowd — hopeful and energized — was Cape May at its best.
We began the night in the ballroom…. well, in the entryway to the ballroom, because by the time we arrived, it was standing room only. This is where the festival choir, including some professional “ringers” from New York City as well as local vocalists like Exit Zero’s own Terry O’Brien, treated the crowd to holiday classics next to a Christmas tree concocted entirely from poinsettias. The music was goosebump-inducing, but equally cool was the 152 — give or take — red light shades which were brought in specifically for this event to replace the brown ones which usually adorn the ceiling’s light fixtures. Talk about attention to detail.
“I was nervous,” O’Brien told us, “because it’s been a while since I’ve sung in a choir like that, where you’re not the star; you’re part of the ensemble.” (And anyone who reads Undertow knows that he is usually the star according to, uh, him.) Our only disappointment is that, although clean-shaven for the first time in a long time, O’Brien was not sporting the same red suspenders as some of the choir’s other members. “Had I known they were allowed,” he told us, “I would have worn them, too.”
At the end of “O Holy Night”, co-managing partner for Cape Resorts Group, CurtisBashaw, gave a speech about the reason for the season — our cliché, not his. He mentioned hostile elections, fiscal cliffs, damaging hurricanes, the fact that he did not win the PowerBall — all of the things all of us have reason to despair about — and the beauty of the fact that this is the time for, despite all of the above, hope. “Hope is the luxurious by-product of faith,” he said. “Faith that Santa will come, that dark nights lead to new and glorious mornings, and that giving trumps receiving every time.” (Proof of this last point: all of the generous guests we saw toting nonperishable food items and children’s gifts being collected by Congress Hall this evening for the Community Food Closet and Toys for Tots organizations.)
A little later, we ran into the man responsible for overseeing the building of Winter Wonderland, staff carpenter and project manager, Bob Shepanski, and his wife Jules. Shepanski told us that he and his crew began working on this year’s set-up last July, and that inspiration came from several field trips to New York City (we were right!), and also from his own little elves, one-year-old Elsa and three-year-old Greta. “I did take into consideration what my kids would enjoy and what, as a father, I would want to pay,” he said.
But just to be clear, Winter Wonderland is a free event, save for a small fee to ride the train, which circles the Congress Hall lawn. Conducter Jessie Alvarez, who spends his non-holiday hours working on Beach Plum Farm, told us how excited the kids are by their very own Polar Express. “One child is on his fourth ride,” he said.
Your reporter was more excited by her Windsor Tort, one of 12,000 cookies baked by Congress Hall’s new pastry chef, Ben Estep, who began working at the hotel the Friday following Hurricane Sandy. He told us he’s spent 17 years in the industry, and that his pedigree includes all of the Steven Starr restaurants in Philadelphia, Bally’s Casino in Atlantic City, and Sandals resort in the Caribbean. “If you can do a wedding cake on the beach in Jamaica,” he said, “You can do it anywhere.” Kudos are owed to Congress Hall’s gardener Dave Chanudet, who was walking around the lawn serving the cookies on a tray, for two reasons. One, he was getting attacked by human seagulls each time we noticed him (“Each tray is empty in seconds!” he told us), and two, he wore an elf hat while he worked, which looked both endearing and ridiculous atop his-six-foot-five frame.
About this time, the countdown to the tree-lighting began and, we have to say, when the 9,000 lights came on, we got a little teary-eyed, but we weren’t the only ones. We asked Roz Johnson, manager of Tommy’s Folly, how she feels about working on such a busy night (she serves about 90 hot chocolates in a couple of hours), and her eyes welled up with tears. “Awesome,” she said. “That tree is a symbol of hope, hope in light after darkness.”
Others grew more excited than emotional by the tree-lighting, evidenced by the ripped tail belonging to Blue the Pig. Project Coordinator Pat Miller told us he’d been assigned to watch over Blue, as the mascot had been “pulled right to the ground” a couple of times by over-enthusiastic children on previous occasions. “But not to worry,” he said. “Blue’s impervious.”
How will YOU react to the sights and sounds of Winter Wonderland? Only one way to find out. It runs every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through December 31. Trust us, it is THE way to kick off your holiday season.
Calling All Animal Lovers
EVERY year, animal activists Linda and Bob Steenrod hold a donation drive called the Animal Giving Tree. On the porch of their Billmae B&B (1015 Washington) is a twinkling Christmas tree under which (or on which) folks can leave items such as treats, food, blankets or towels for bedding, collars, and bleach for cleaning, all of which will be dropped off at the County Shelter.
Monetary donations (big or small… every little bit helps) are greatly appreciated as well. This year, the Steenrods are asking that checks be made out to the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (a no-kill sanctuary, hospital, and rehabilitation adoption center that was responsible for the rehabilitation of the Michael Vick dogs), or to Save US Pets Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring no pet is denied lifesaving treatment. Bring checks to the Steenrods home, located just next door to Billmae at 1011 Washington, and know you’re making a difference in the life of a deserving, down-on-his-luck doggie this Christmas. We can’t think of a better way to embrace the giving spirit this year.
Exit Zero Burns Supper
Consider this your second warning… break out the kilts! On Thursday, January 24, we will be holding the event of the winter season at the Ugly Mug. We are, of course, referring to the 9th Annual Exit Zero Burns Supper, which pays homage to the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns, and is a sell-out every year.
A bagpipe brigade, whisky cake, some of Robbie Burns best poetry, and delicious haggis (and fish and chips for those who don’t want to try Scotland’s national dish) make this a night worth marking your calendars for. Reserve your tickets early; they’re already selling. You can do so by giving us a ring at 609-770-8479, or by visiting ezstore.us.
You don’t have to be Scottish to have a great time, and tickets are the same price as they were the first year — just $30.