By Donald Wittkowski
A 10-member committee comprised of local residents is recommending that the former Sea Isle City Public School should be demolished and redeveloped into a community recreation complex that could cost as much as $17 million if an indoor pool is included.
The committee also studied the possibility of renovating the old school into a recreation center, but concluded that the best option would be to build an entirely new complex on the Park Road site between 45th and 46th streets.
“After considerable discussion regarding the foregoing options, the members of the committee were unanimous in their opinion that the existing building be demolished and a new facility be built,” the panel said in a May 16 memorandum to Mayor Leonard Desiderio and City Council.
A community recreation center should include a modern gymnasium and other amenities, the committee recommended. However, the members were split in their feelings about including an indoor pool.
Six of them supported having a pool, while two were opposed. The remaining two members favored having a pool as long as it does not adversely affect plans for other public recreation facilities, such as the proposed bayfront kayak launching and storage site at the city’s Dealy Field athletic complex.
“Those who were not in favor of the pool expressed concerns with the initial capital costs, as well as the ongoing costs associated with staffing and maintenance,” the committee memo said. “Those in favor of the pool indicated the belief that investing in a community pool would provide a desired amenity to residents and visitors, and would also serve to attract people to Sea Isle City.”
Meanwhile, there was a general consensus among the committee members that if a pool is built, a fee should be charged for membership. Sea Isle residents should receive discounted memberships as well as first preference for using the pool, the committee recommended.
According to the memo, a new recreation complex that has an indoor pool would cost an estimated $15 million to $17 million. It would cost $10 million to $12 million to build a recreation center that does not have a pool.
Renovating the old school would be the least expensive option, with an estimated price tag of $2 million. Renovations would include adding a new gym, an air-conditioning system, handicap-accessible bathrooms, new windows and landscaping improvements.
Renovations to the old school would be constrained by flood-mitigation requirements. In order to renovate the building without having to upgrade it to current flood-protection standards, the cost of the project could not exceed 50 percent of the structure’s market value, the committee said.
The committee members were appointed by Desiderio to study the possibility of transforming the old school into a recreation site. Former Police Chief Tom D’Intino, who retired in January, was among the members.
Now that the committee has made its recommendation, the city plans to schedule a series of hearings in the summer and possibly the fall to gather public feedback, Desiderio and Council President Mary Tighe said.
“We would want to reach out to get more public opinion,” Tighe said.
Both Tighe and Desiderio emphasized that any discussion about the project will include a detailed cost analysis, including the implications on the local tax rate.
“Ultimately, the taxpayers will have to foot the bill, and we want them to have a say,” the mayor said.
Both Desiderio and Tighe have publicly expressed their support for using the school site for recreation. However, both said Monday they are not yet ready to endorse any particular option for redeveloping the school. They stressed that they want to listen to the public and confer with other city officials before making any decisions.
Tighe, though, noted that she plans to scrutinize the recommendation for a pool to see whether it would be worth the extra cost.
“I’m not sure that a pool is feasible for us,” she said. “We’re only a town of 2,000 people.”
Built in 1971, the old school closed in 2012 due to declining student enrollment. Sea Isle now sends its students to outside school districts for their education.
The school occupies an entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street. Such a large chunk of property could prove to be very valuable in a beach town that has a scarcity of developable land.
Desiderio said he does not support rezoning the school site to allow for private development, including condominiums or other types of residential construction.
“I think the best use of that property is for recreation,” he said.
In 2015, the city conducted a community survey asking the public for suggestions on what should be done with the school. The highest number of respondents, or 36 percent, proposed having the building redeveloped as a park or recreation site. The second-highest response was to use the property as a parking lot.
The survey also asked the public for recommendations on the types of activities or programs that should be included if the school becomes a recreation site. More than half of the respondents, or 52 percent, wanted a gymnasium, followed by teen activities (49 percent) and senior-citizen programs (43 percent).
The possibility of building an indoor pool at the school generated the highest number of written comments in the survey. Among the suggestions, 47 of the respondents said they wanted a community center with a pool, while four others were against a pool.
The city recently removed the words “Public School” from the front entrance of the building and have begun calling it the “Sea Isle City Recreation Building.”
Although the building no longer functions as a school, it is not dead space. The gym is open to the public for basketball games. Other parts of the building are used as a game room and other recreation space.
On Monday, Sea Isle residents Arlene and Tom Burke brought their grandsons, Jack, 3, and Charlie, 2, to the old school so they could play in the gym and a game room.
The grandsons live in St. Petersburg, Fla., and are visiting with the Burkes. Arlene Burke said that when they were heading to the old school, Jack asked her whether they were going to a pool.
“We were talking about it and he said, ‘Aren’t we going to take a swim?’” Burke said. “I told him, ‘No, we don’t have a pool.’”
The Burkes, who live on Sounds Avenue, have been full-time residents of Sea Isle for the past two years and have been vacationing here for more than 30 years. Arlene Burke said it would be nice to have a community pool, but questioned whether taxpayers could afford one.
“Of course I would like that, but I realize that the cost could be prohibitive,” she said.