The Townsends Inlet Civic Center is facing possible foreclosure stemming from an unpaid tax bill of more than $45,000.

By Donald Wittkowski

Despite its chipped-paint shabbiness and severe financial troubles that could force the property into foreclosure, the Townsends Inlet Civic Center may be rescued after all with help from the local business community.

The Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization is considering the possibility of applying for a historic restoration grant to refurbish the old building and keep it going as a civic center.

Peeling paint and a weather-beaten exterior suggest that the 19th century building is in need of a major overhaul. Chamber officials are unsure of the condition of the interior because the doors are locked and no one has been able to get a peek inside recently.

“It looks like it’s in bad shape from the outside,” said Christopher Glancey, the Chamber president.

Glancey noted there are growing fears in the community that the privately owned building will be demolished and redeveloped for duplexes if it falls into foreclosure, stemming from an unpaid tax bill of more than $45,000.

At their board meeting Tuesday, Glancey and other Chamber members discussed ways that the organization may get involved to help save the center. Glancey raised the possibility of the Chamber using its designation as a member of New Jersey’s Main Street community revitalization program to apply for a historic restoration grant.

“I think you can keep it as a civic center and let people use it,” Glancey said. “I think it would be nice to have a little spot on the island for shows and such.”

Glancey, however, explained that the Chamber is unsure who is in charge of the property following the death last year of Louise Clemente, the driving force behind the civic center. Confusion over the current leadership could hamper the Chamber’s attempts to help the center, he indicated.

“The first thing we have to do is find out who is in charge,” he said.

Christopher Glancey, president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, wants to see the civic center preserved.
Christopher Glancey, president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, wants to see the civic center preserved.

Even when Clemente was alive, she did not respond to the Chamber’s earlier offers to help the civic center by applying for a historic restoration grant, according to Glancey.

Although the center is fighting for its survival now, it has a storied history as a cultural landmark, community hub and entertainment venue. A plaque on the facade indicates the building dates to 1888. For years, it hosted concerts, dances, beauty pageants, church services, pancake breakfasts, flea markets, holiday celebrations and many other special events.

The building is located on 85th Street about a block from the beach, a prime location that could be tempting to developers. There are signs in the windows that say “This place matters,” an apparent reference to the civic center’s historic role in the community.

But now, the center is threatened by possible foreclosure stemming from the alleged failure of its private owner, the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association, to maintain its tax-exempt status.

Hoping that the community will come to its aid, the association recently sent a letter to local residents appealing to them for donations to help it pay its taxes. City spokeswoman Katherine Custer said the civic center owes $45,750 in unpaid taxes and interest.

The association’s letter urges residents to make a donation toward the civic center’s tax bill to help fulfill “Louise’s dream.” Attempts to contact the association for comment were unsuccessful.

According to the city, the association failed several years ago to file the paperwork to maintain its tax-exempt status, forcing Sea Isle to begin taxing the civic center property, as required by law. Afterward, the association fell behind in paying the taxes.

“The owners, frankly, have been nonresponsive to us in our communications,” Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano said of the city’s efforts to contact the association.

“They have to pay their taxes,” Savastano continued. “There’s not much the city can do other than to let them know what they need to do. We have an obligation to collect taxes.”

A deteriorated plaque on the facade indicates the building dates to 1888.
A deteriorated plaque on the facade indicates the building dates to 1888.

The city disclosed the civic center’s financial troubles in a public notice posted on the municipality’s website in March. The notice said the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association must pay the full amount of the tax lien to avoid foreclosure.

Kevin Lavan, a Sea Isle resident and civic center proponent, has started a Facebook page to rally community support for the building. Lavan, who is not with the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association, has written to city officials for clarification on how the organization might regain its tax-exempt status.

Joseph A. Berrodin, Sea Isle’s tax assessor, explained to Lavan in an email that both the city and the Cape May County Board of Taxation would have to approve restoring the association’s tax-exempt status if the property “was deemed to meet all the requirements.”

Lavan believes that Berrodin’s email confirms that “the bleeding can stop” for the civic center once the tax forms are received and approved by the city and county.