By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Balking at the cost, City Council rejected plans by Mayor Leonard Desiderio for an estimated $20 million community recreation center that would be developed on the site of Sea Isle City’s former public school.
The governing body capped a lengthy debate Tuesday by voting 2-2 to commit to funding the project. It was far short of the “super majority” of four affirmative votes required to authorize a bond ordinance for the funding package.
Council members Jack Gibson and Mary Tighe voted no, while William Kehner and J.B. Feeley supported the proposal. Councilman Frank Edwardi did not attend the meeting.
Gibson and Tighe said they support the concept of a new community recreation center at the old school site, but raised objections about the proposed cost. They noted that the estimated price tag had climbed from $15 million to $20 million this year alone.
“People are scared of the $20 million price tag,” Tighe said.
Desiderio and members of his administration have said the cost of lumber and other building materials has risen dramatically during the pandemic. They warned that costs will only go higher if the city delays the project.
“If we delay any longer, the cost will go up,” the mayor said.
Indicating that he would be willing to reconsider the project at a lower cost, Gibson urged Desiderio to revise the plans and return to Council at a later time.
In an interview after the Council meeting, Gibson said he wants to see a project that would cost “considerably less than $20 million.”
“Let the mayor take the lead. All we did was reject the proposal,” said Gibson, who serves as Council president.
Clearly disappointed with the vote, Desiderio acknowledged that the project is stalled for the moment. He characterized it as a “minor setback.”
“It’s not moving along right now,” he said in an interview. “We have to go back to the drawing board and see what we can do. The ball was in Council’s court. Now it comes back to me to see what we can do.”
Plans have been moving slowly in the past two years while Desiderio’s administration worked with an architect to design the project amid questions about the recreation center’s proposed cost, the impact on the tax rate and how much it would be used by local residents in a town that has a year-round population of about 2,100.
Desiderio has repeatedly characterized the project as a much-needed amenity that has broad community support and will serve as one of the city’s centerpieces for decades to come.
“We have a good plan. It fits all of our programming needs,” he said to Council while referring to the project’s proposed dual role as a community center and recreation facility.
He also said that the city is in such solid financial shape that the tax impact of the project on local property owners would only be “minimal.”
Tighe, though, said Council needs more information on the tax impact and the building’s utilization in order to make a decision. She said Council has asked the administration for that information and has not yet received it.
“We want a new community center … but at what cost? How much is it going to be utilized? Tighe asked.
Hoping to reduce the proposed cost, the administration has scaled back the original designs to eliminate plans for an auditorium and a cafeteria inside the community recreation center.
According to preliminary plans, the new facility would include a large gymnasium featuring a regulation-size basketball court that could also be converted into pickleball courts and a volleyball court.
The gym would include retractable bleachers holding about 175 spectators. A retractable divider net would allow the gym to be sectioned off for other activities.
Overlooking the gym on the building’s second level would be a “skywalk” for walking and jogging.
The first floor would also have a workout room for such activities as yoga, Zumba and Pilates.
There would also be space in the building that local community groups could use for meetings, events and other activities.
The former public school at 4501 Park Road would be demolished to make room for the recreation center. The building occupies the entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street.
Built in 1971, the school closed in 2012 due to Sea Isle’s declining student population. The school building served as a temporary City Hall after Hurricane Sandy severely damaged Sea Isle’s old City Hall in 2012. A new City Hall was built in 2015.
In recent years, the former school has deteriorated while its use has been limited. Gibson suggested that the city should explore the possibility of refurbishing the old building and using it as a community recreation center. He noted that the old school has never been flooded.
However, Desiderio is adamantly opposed to saving the old school. He said the community has been united in wanting to see the school demolished and a new community recreation center built in its place.
“The school, as it sits right now, is unacceptable and cannot be used for recreation,” Desiderio said during a Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization luncheon that followed the Council meeting.
In remarks to the Chamber, Desiderio vowed that the community recreation center “is going to be built.”
Brian Heritage, the Chamber’s president, spoke strongly in favor of the community recreation project during remarks at the luncheon and at the Council meeting. He said it would be a crucial part of making Sea Isle a more attractive and well-rounded community for decades.
“This is an investment in the future,” he said.
Astonished by Council’s vote to reject the project, Heritage used a football analogy to describe what he argued was a major blow to the community.
“We’re at the one-yard line now and we’re going to fumble the ball away,” he said.
Other members of the business community also voiced their support for the project. Most of them joined Heritage in describing the recreation center as a crucial investment that should benefit the city for perhaps the next 50 years.
“We can afford to take on this project,” Dustin Laricks, a local real estate broker said, referring to the city’s historically low tax rate.
Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant, expressed his support, but questioned how the project’s estimated cost has risen from the original figure of about $13 million two years ago to $20 million now.
“I just don’t see how we got elevated to this number,” Monichetti said.
Supporters of the project also included two members of the Sea Isle Recreation Committee, Arthur Iannone and Mark Rose. Iannone, the chairman of the Recreation Committee, told Council that the cost would only climb higher if construction of the recreation center is delayed.
“Nothing’s going to get any cheaper in the future,” Iannone said.
Rose said he believes a community recreation center would help to transform Sea Isle into a year-round community rather than staying mainly as a summertime beach resort.
Addressing the issue whether the center would be adequately used, Rose said he thought the facility would provide “an enormous amount of activity” for all demographic groups.
Another resident, John Divney, a former city councilman, believes it is an “overreach” to think there will be enough people and activities to justify a $20 million project.
Divney said he supports the concept of a community recreation center, but told city officials that he is worried Sea Isle “is going to build a white elephant” if the project is developed at the cost and scope that have been discussed.