The owners of Casino Pier in Seaside Heights will potentially dedicate as much as $40 million to a build a pier extension and new rides in what some hail as a reinvigoration of the famous boardwalk. Others, however, view the borough’s plan to give more than an acre of sand to the pier owners in exchange for a historic carousel and a boardwalk museum and as a giveaway that would erode a precious swath of beachfront property.
The two sides of the debate were discussed at a hearing Wednesday night in Seaside Heights, a requirement by the state Department of Environmental Protection because the land on which the proposed pier extension would be built is included in an open space inventory filed by borough officials.
The hearing provided some of the first detailed glimpses into what the expanded pier and boardwalk museum might look like, including an artist’s rendering of the latter. Borough Attorney George Gilmore said the multi million-dollar pier expansion would include a new Ferris wheel and roller coaster, among other modern thrill rides. A protective dune that is planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be built underneath the pier itself and be anchored by the pier’s superstructure. The Sky Ride cable car attraction would be moved northward from its current position.
Under the land swap plan, the borough would give up 1.36 acres of beachfront north of the current pier for the expansion. In return, the Storino family, which owns Casino Pier, would donate back about an equal amount of land and a historic Dentzel-Loof Carousel. The carousel would be housed in a boardwalk museum which would be built on the donated land, which is currently used as a parking lot situated between Carteret and Sampson avenues.
A rendering of the proposed museum shows a grand, octagonal building with a sprawling observation deck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
“We’re trying to find a way to have a tourist draw back in Seaside Heights,” said Gilmore. “There really hasn’t been a significant increase [in tourism] since Sandy, we’ve kind of been in the doldrums.”
The borough’s business community largely agreed, endorsing the plan during the hearing, though some residents balked at the idea of giving up publicly owned beachfront to a private company – even for the chance to save the carousel, which was to be sold by the Storino family.
“Our beach belongs to all of us here in Seaside Heights, and we’re so proud to share it with visitors from around the world,” said Steven Melvin, owner of Three Brothers Pizza. “How dare anyone think they can just give it away. There is an alternative to this. The deal stinks.”
Melvin said if the land must be sold off, it should go to the highest bidder, not just the business with the “deepest pockets.”
But Melvin’s disdain for the land swap ran counter to most of his colleagues in the borough’s tourism industry.
“Since Sandy came, my business has dropped tremendously,” said Tom Partyka, who runs a rental home business. “When my vacationers call to reserve, they’re constantly asking me, ‘Tom, what’s going on? There’s not enough rides there.’ I think it’s a fantastic idea and it’s great for all the business owners.”
“Without exception, everyone is for this proposal,” said Mike Loundy, a broker with Seaside Realty, speaking for about 500 rental home owners he represents. ” In July of 2013 when we had no rides, all of us in business here saw that we had no one in town. When the pier opened, people came back here again.”
Wayne Cimorelli, owner of Spicy Cantina, agreed.
“For years, I always heard, ‘why can’t Seaside Heights be more like Point Pleasant Beach?’” he said. “The Casino Pier people, who own the entire boardwalk in Point Pleasant, have proven that they are family oriented and can do things right, and they can not only compete with Wildwood, but Ocean City as well. The fact that they want to make this capital improvement to our town is something that we shouldn’t take for granted.”
But some residents said Seaside Heights’ issues go beyond a lack of rides, and those issues need to be addressed before the borough’s most valuable asset – its beach – is whittled away.
“Our property values have tanked,” said Andre Tulley. “The situation we’re discussing tonight will do nothing to resolve the borough’s real problems. The best part of Seaside Heights is our beach. Giving away a portion of it is a crime.”
Mayor William Akers said with the planned beach replenishment project, the borough’s beaches will grow larger to make up for the sand lost to the pier proposal.
“We agree the beach is the reason people come to Seaside Heights, but your beach is going to be there and it’s going to be just as big or bigger than it is now,” Akers said.
The debate will continue as public comment on the plan will be accepted through May 20. The DEP must sign off on the project before the borough can convey the beachfront land to the Casino Pier owners.