By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
City Council introduced a $20 million bond ordinance Tuesday to fund the construction of Sea Isle City’s proposed community recreation center, representing the most significant step yet for a project that has been discussed for the past three years.
A public hearing and final vote on the ordinance are scheduled for the Feb. 8 Council meeting. At that time, members of the public will be able to express their support or opposition to the funding plan.
The bond ordinance is the most important development so far for a project that began in 2019, when Council gave Mayor Leonard Desiderio formal authorization to move forward with the community center.
“I again want to thank all who’ve participated in the process to get us to this point,” Desiderio told the Council members Tuesday. “As I’ve stated before, it’s clear that the people of the city want a community center, and the project that is proposed will meet the needs of Sea Isle long into the future. The facility will be one more asset to all that we have and all that we do for the people of the city.”
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.
The city is already working with an architect on the final designs for the project. Once the bond ordinance receives final approval to put the funding in place, the city will be able to seek competitive bids from construction contractors in several months.
In the latest tentative timetable for the project, Desiderio said he hopes the city will break ground by summer or September at the latest. Construction is expected to take about 18 months to complete, which would put the grand opening sometime in 2024, city officials say.
“We want to do it right. We’re in no rush,” Desiderio said in an interview after the Council meeting.
Councilman J.B. Feeley said the governing body is in agreement with the mayor about the community benefits of the project.
“I think it has something for everyone in there,” Feeley said.
Council hasn’t always been so compliant. As recently as October, Council President Jack Gibson and Councilwoman Mary Tighe had expressed concerns over whether a $20 million community center was too expensive for a town that has about 2,000 full-time residents.
Gibson and Tighe voted against funding the project in October, but changed their minds after Desiderio organized a town hall meeting on Dec. 4 to give the public a detailed presentation on the building’s cost, tax implications and amenities.
City officials say the community center would have only a “minimal impact” on local taxes. Leon Costello, the city auditor, has estimated the project would cause local taxes to increase about $90 annually on a home assessed at $1 million.
Council approved an architectural design contract for the project during a vote at its Dec. 14 meeting, culminating discussions and debate that dragged on for close to three years.
Tighe and Councilman Frank Edwardi were not in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting to vote on the introduction of the bond ordinance. Gibson, Feeley and Councilman William Kehner voted 3-0 to introduce the measure.
The building’s proposed design reflects its dual role as a community center and recreation facility. There would be a large gymnasium, indoor walkway and workout space for recreation. The building would also include space that local community groups could use for meetings, events and other activities.
Parking would be built both underneath the community center and next to it at ground level. The building itself would be constructed above flood levels to protect it from coastal storms.
Plans call for demolishing the city’s former public school at 4501 Park Road to make room for construction of the community center. The new building would occupy the block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street.
The bond package will pay for the demolition of the old school and construction of the community center.
The city’s architect, Henry Hengchua, has already developed preliminary designs that give the public a good indication of what the building will look like on the outside, including the front entrance facing Central Avenue. Preliminary architectural renderings unveiled last year depict a two-story building dominated by a glossy facade and accented by plenty of landscaping.
City officials say they want to have an attractive building that blends into the neighborhood and does not look “institutional.”
In other business Tuesday, Council awarded a $21,700 architectural design contract for renovations to the firehouse that will provide bunk space for firefighters when they work the overnight shift.
The city began stationing firefighters overnight at the firehouse last summer as part of a hybrid model consisting of volunteers in the day and paid firefighters for overnight duty.
By having crews stationed overnight at the firehouse, they will be able to rush to fires faster. Normally, Sea Isle’s volunteer firefighters must drive to the fire station from their homes or jobs after the alarm goes off, a process that adds time for responding to emergencies.
The overnight crews were part of the fire department’s restructuring in 2020 following four separate fires in 2017, 2018 and 2019 that destroyed a total of nine single-family homes or duplexes. One of the fires killed an elderly woman on 54th Street in November 2018.
Although the overnight crews are ready to respond as soon as the alarm sounds, they will be able to get some rest during their down time thanks to plans by the city to convert existing space at the fire station into sleeping quarters.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, city officials said a formal goodbye to Sea Isle’s Chief Financial Officer Paula Doll, who is retiring after working for the city for 16 years. She also served as the city’s tax collector.
“Paula has exemplified the highest level of professionalism, expertise, and integrity during her entire tenure with Sea Isle,” Desiderio said. “There’s no doubt that she’s been instrumental in securing Sea Isle’s outstanding financial position.”
Desiderio presented Doll with a ceremonial key to the city as a token of appreciation. He and the Council members exchanged hugs with Doll while thanking her for her service.