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Sea Isle City's former public school may be redeveloped into a community recreation center.

By Donald Wittkowski

The redevelopment of Sea Isle City’s former public school into a recreation center could cost as much as $20 million if an indoor swimming pool is included in the facility, residents were told Tuesday during a public presentation on the proposed project.

Sea Isle is studying different options for transforming the old red-brick school at 4501 Park Road into a community recreation complex, with development costs ranging from $2 million to $20 million depending on exactly what is built, city officials said.

A presentation on the project during Tuesday’s City Council meeting included the unveiling of architectural renderings, giving the public the first glimpse of what the school’s conversion into a recreation center might look like.

Mayor Leonard Desiderio and other city officials noted that the recreation center remains one of Sea Isle’s top projects. They said the city is committed to gathering as much public feedback as possible before any decisions are made on the final cost and design.

“Clearly, everyone has great passion for this (project),” City Business Administrator George Savastano told the audience.

In an interview after the presentation, Desiderio said the city will hold more public meetings on the project, including a Saturday session that will be scheduled later. He said he would be ready to move forward once the city is done collecting public input, although a timetable for starting construction is not yet known.

“We’re definitely going to move on this project – one way or another,” the mayor said.

Katherine Custer, the city’s director of Community Services, explained that three options are under consideration: renovating the former school for recreation, demolishing the old building and developing an entirely new recreation center or constructing a new recreation complex that would include an indoor pool.

Shown from the back side in this photo, the old school currently is used for storage, office space and community programs.

The old school, built in 1971, occupies an entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street. It closed in 2012 due to Sea Isle’s declining student enrollment. Sea Isle now sends its students to other school districts for their education.

The building is currently used for office space, storage, special events, community programs and public recreation in the gymnasium. Custer said the old school is in need of an entirely new heating and air-conditioning system, a modern gym, new windows and doors and new handicap-accessible bathrooms.

The cost of renovating the building into a recreation complex is estimated at $2 million, the cheapest of the three options the city is studying. The building, though, does not meet current flood standards and would likely have to be elevated about 3 feet if it is renovated.

Savastano strongly indicated that it would be impractical to raise the building to make it compliant with current flood-protection requirements, so it would be better to tear down the old school to make room for a new recreation center.

City officials appear to favor building an entirely new recreation facility, but opinions are split on whether it should include an indoor pool.

A 10-member study committee issued a report last year that unanimously recommended building a new recreation center rather than renovating the old school.

However, two committee members opposed having a pool included in the project. Six members favored having a pool. The remaining two members said they supported having a pool if it did not divert money away from the city’s other recreation programs.

Custer said the cost of building a new recreation center is estimated at $17 million to $20 million if a pool is included. In addition, it would cost an estimated $500,000 to $1 million annually for maintenance and staffing of a pool.

The construction cost for a new recreation facility that does not include a pool would be between $13 million and $16 million.

Sea Isle City Public School was built in 1971 and closed in 2012 due to declining student enrollment. (Photo courtesy of Sea Isle City Historical Society and Museum)

Savastano said the city will outline the tax implications of the proposed project during upcoming public meetings. He expressed confidence that the city would be able to build the recreation center without a tax hit to homeowners.

In 2015, the city conducted a community survey asking the public for suggestions on what should be done with the old 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.

Members of the public who spoke during the presentation Tuesday were divided about the project. Some strongly endorsed the idea of a new recreation center that has a pool, while others expressed concerns about the cost.

“I would love a pool,” said Tina McGarvey, a local resident. “I think it would be a great addition to our community.”

Other supporters of the project said a community pool would make Sea Isle more family friendly, would draw new visitors to town and would be a place where children could safely learn how to swim.

“The facilities for children to learn how to swim are extremely limited in South Jersey,” said Dustin Laricks, a Sea Isle resident and local real estate broker.

Laricks said he believes there would be heavy demand for a community pool. He pitched the idea of having swim clubs and other organizations pay pool fees to help offset the maintenance costs for Sea Isle.

Another Sea Isle resident, Lynne Shirk, told Council that she opposes a pool because it would be too expensive for taxpayers.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” Shirk said. “The expense is extreme.”

Tom Maguire, another local resident, suggested that the city should look for corporate sponsorship for the recreation center to help defray costs. He wondered whether the city could sell naming rights for the building to a corporation or some other sponsor.