By Donald Wittkowski
The Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization is exploring the possibility of using its membership in a state community revitalization program to help preserve or renovate historic buildings in town.
Christopher Glancey, Chamber president, insisted that the business group officially remains neutral in any local feuds over historic preservation, including the ongoing controversy over the fate of the 135-year-old chapel at St. Joseph Catholic Church.
Glancey told the Chamber members during their monthly board meeting on Tuesday that no specific projects have been designated for historic preservation.
“It has to be broad. It has to be nonspecific,” he said.
The Chamber is part of the state’s Main Street New Jersey program, a community revitalization effort that promotes economic development and historic preservation in traditional downtown business districts.
Glancey said he and the Chamber’s treasurer, Liz Pane, consulted with an attorney about the Main Street program and how it might be used for historic preservation in Sea Isle.
According to Glancey, a committee would have to be formed that would have a separate account from the Chamber’s finances. The committee, in turn, could help people or organizations in Sea Isle with fundraising efforts or obtaining Main Street grants for historic preservation.
Responding to pointed questions by Chamber member Mike Monichetti, Glancey offered assurances that the Chamber will not use its own money to help preserve or renovate historic buildings.
Monichetti, the owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant, stressed that he wants the Chamber to concentrate on drawing more visitors to town to help the local businesses, particularly during the slower weekdays in Sea Isle.
“We need money to save our businesses,” Monichetti said of the Chamber’s marketing budget. “I think that trumps preservation, right?”
Meanwhile, Glancey noted that he has spoken to former Mayor Mike McHale about creating a partnership between the Chamber and the Sea Isle City Historical Society and Museum for the Main Street program. McHale serves on the museum’s board of trustees and is a former president.
McHale, also a parishioner at St. Joseph Catholic Church, is leading a church faction that opposes the idea of tearing down the 135-year-old chapel on Landis Avenue, one of Sea Isle’s most historic buildings. Father Joseph Perreault, St. Joseph’s pastor, and church leaders have been discussing the possibility of redeveloping the little-used chapel into a spiritual life center.
Amid fierce opposition from McHale and other preservationists in the parish, Perreault has proposed a compromise that would remove the possibility of demolition. According to his proposal, a special “restricted account” would be created to fund the chapel’s repairs and maintenance through donations from church members. The church’s operating budget would not be used for the chapel’s upkeep.
Perreault said in a letter to parishioners in March that it is a financial burden for St. Joseph to fund both the new church, which was built in 2011, and to maintain the old chapel.
The old St. Joseph Church chapel was built just two years after visionary real estate developer Charles K. Landis founded Sea Isle City in 1882 as a Venice, Italy-inspired beach resort.
A recent engineering study concluded that the chapel is in “fair” shape overall, but repairs are needed for leaks, some structural damage and mold infestation. The heating and air-conditioning systems must also be repaired or replaced, the church has said.
Although the Chamber has declared itself officially neutral in the church dispute, McHale appeared at the organization’s December board meeting to try to rally support for saving the old chapel.
It was at that time that the Chamber first began discussing whether it could use its Main Street designation to acquire grants for historic preservation in Sea Isle, which might include the old church.
Glancey, though, repeatedly said during Tuesday’s board meeting that the Main Street program represents a broad strategy for historic preservation throughout Sea Isle rather than an attempt to focus on the old St. Joseph’s chapel.
“It’s still in its infancy,” Glancey said later in an interview. “It’s just a way to formalize how to do it if we go to the state for a Main Street grant.”
Glancey explained this is not the first time the Chamber has considered using its membership in Main Street New Jersey to preserve one of Sea Isle’s historic buildings. In 2017, the Chamber discussed applying for a historic preservation grant to save the Townsends Inlet Civic Center when the privately owned community site was facing possible foreclosure for back taxes. The Civic Center, a building that dates to 1888 and formerly served as the city’s old trolley stop, avoided foreclosure when the taxes were paid off.