By Donald Wittkowski
The Townsends Inlet Civic Center has been turned into a gigantic fundraising billboard of sorts as part of a desperate appeal to the community to help save the historic Sea Isle City building from foreclosure.
Mixed in with the Christmas decorations adorning the building’s facade are American flags, patriotic bunting and signs that urge the public to donate money to the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association, the civic center owner.
“You can save the T.I. Civic Center before they foreclose,” one sign says.
Another sign in a front window says, “Get the kids to help!”
A large sign above the door urges the public to take a $100 pledge to “stop the city from killing” the civic center.
The building has also been plastered with the logos of TV channels and networks in an apparent attempt to draw media attention to the center’s plight.
Once a community hub, entertainment venue and cultural landmark, the civic center is fighting for its survival after the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association fell behind on its local property taxes.
The association’s financial crisis began several years ago when it failed to file the required paperwork to maintain its tax-exempt status, forcing Sea Isle to begin taxing the civic center property as required by law. City officials have said the association owes more than $45,000 in taxes.
George Savastano, Sea Isle’s business administrator, strongly denied accusations that the city has been trying to “kill” the civic center.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We’ll do anything within our authority to help them.”
Savastano stressed that the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association is being treated no differently than any other property owner who fails to pay their taxes.
One sign on the civic center says the building’s financial troubles began when the city sent a “crippling tax bill.”
Ultimately, the city would prefer to see the civic center remain as a community asset, Savastano said. But he also noted that the building remains in private hands and its fate is outside the city’s jurisdiction.
Efforts to reach a representative of the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association on Friday for comment were unsuccessful. City officials said it remains unclear who is in charge of the organization following the death last year of Louise Clemente, the driving force behind the civic center for years.
A picture of Clemente, along with signs and inspirational messages chronicling her contributions to the center, are posted in the windows and attached to the building.
“Help make Louise’s Dream come true,” one sign says.
The fundraising effort also notes that it was Clemente’s “last wish” to see the civic center continue to benefit the community.
The civic center is one of Sea Isle’s most historic landmarks. A plaque on the facade indicates the building dates to 1888. For years, the center 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 site that could be tempting to condominium developers. Savastano said the surrounding area is zoned for mixed-use development.
The zoning would give developers the option of building a commercial project or condos in place of the civic center if its ownership changes hands through foreclosure.
An entity called Pro Cap 4 LLC has acquired the civic center’s tax certificate in a tax sale. The tax certificate is a lien against the property and gives Pro Cap 4 the power to foreclose on the property and take possession.
Paula Doll, Sea Isle’s chief financial officer and tax collector, said Friday she does not know whether the courts have given final approval for the civic center’s foreclosure.
Earlier this year, business partners Christopher Glancey and Bob Morris, who have developed millions of dollars in retail, residential and restaurant projects in the city’s Townsends Inlet section, had wanted to preserve the civic center as a community hub.
They tried to reach an agreement to buy the tax sale certificate from Pro Cap 4 for about $22,000, but were turned down, Glancey said.
Glancey and Morris had wanted to help the civic center regain its tax-exempt status, giving it some breathing room to recover from its financial troubles.
The Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization has discussed the possibility of applying for a historic restoration grant to refurbish the civic center and keep it going as a community site. Glancey is the Chamber’s president.