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

By Donald Wittkowski

Last year, the words “Public School” were removed from the front of the old red-brick building at 4501 Park Road.

In March, three dilapidated trailer-like modular units that once served as an annex at the former Sea Isle City Public School were demolished.

The big question is, will the former school building itself be the next thing to go?

On Tuesday, a presentation will be made to City Council on plans to possibly transform the old school site into a community recreation center – a project that could cost as much as $17 million, according to one study. The presentation is scheduled at 10 a.m. in the Council chambers at City Hall.

Mayor Leonard Desiderio said it is his intention to retain the school property for public recreation. He noted that community surveys have shown the residents want to see the old school property used for that purpose.

“That being said, we will need to make some lofty decisions on exactly how to move forward at 4501 Park Road and decide precisely what type of recreation facility we all want it to be,” the mayor said in a May 23 message to the public about the project.

The city has been exploring two principal options, including whether to demolish the old school to make room for construction of an entirely new recreation complex or to renovate the building for a recreation center.

“So, to begin the process of publicly explaining our various options, on June 11 we will outline the research we have completed thus far and then continue down the path of gathering additional input from our residents and property owners, so we can explore all options and ultimately create a recreation facility that will make us all proud,” Desiderio said.

Sea Isle Business Administrator George Savastano recently told City Council that the fate of the former school remains “a priority.”

Savastano gave no timetable for when the decision would be made, but emphasized that the city is seeking input from the public.

Tuesday’s presentation will include the unveiling of architectural renderings, giving the public the first glimpse of what the school’s possible conversion into a recreation center might look like.

The back of the building looks much better following the demolition in March of three blighted trailer-like modular units that had once served as an annex to the school.

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.

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.

A 10-member study committee issued a report last year that recommended building an entirely new recreation center rather than renovating the old school. The estimated cost of a new building, including a gym and indoor pool, would be about $17 million, the committee said.

“After considerable discussion … the members of the committee were unanimous in their opinion that the existing building should be demolished and a new facility be built,” the panel said in a May 16, 2018, memorandum to the mayor and City Council.

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.

The committee also studied the possibility of renovating the former school into a recreation center. The price for that option would be about $2 million and would include a new gym, handicap-accessible bathrooms and other improvements.

Although the building itself is generally sound, it sits below the elevation considered safe for flood protection under current standards, city officials say.

The dilemma of converting the old school into a recreation center is that if the renovations were to cost more than 50 percent of the building’s value, it would have to be brought up to current flood standards, officials said.

The old school’s gymnasium would likely be replaced by a modern gym if the building is renovated or redeveloped.