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According to preliminary plans, the project would serve the dual role as a recreation facility and community center. (Architectural rendering courtesy of Sea Isle City)

By DONALD WITTKOWSKI

Sea Isle City is moving to the next phase of its proposed community recreation center project, just two weeks after giving the public the first glimpse of what the estimated $13 million to $16 million facility may look like when completed.

City Council is expected to award a $280,000 contract at its Aug. 25 meeting for architectural and engineering services, including the project’s schematic design and design development phase.

Henry Hengchua, a Toms River architect who already has a relationship with the city, will be performing the work under the new contract.

Under an earlier contract, Hengchua developed conceptual designs for the project – a combination recreation facility and community center that would be housed in an attractive brick building accented by a glossy glass facade.

Giving the public its first look, Hengchua unveiled his conceptual designs during a presentation at the Aug. 11 Council meeting. The meeting was held online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For his new contract, Hengchua will be consulting with other architectural, engineering and construction experts while coordinating the next phase of the project, Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer said.

“Now that we have a general concept plan, we have to take it to the next level,” Custer said. “Henry has to work with some of his peers and get some details, because then they will have an idea of what’s required to build something like that.”

Far more than a recreation facility, the building would also include a cafeteria, catering kitchen, meeting space and a 140-seat auditorium for plays and other cultural events as part of its dual role as a community center.

One of the centerpieces would be a large gymnasium featuring a regulation-size basketball court, pickleball courts, retractable bleachers and partitions to divide the space for other recreation activities.

Overlooking the gym on a second level would be a “sky walkway” for exercising. There would also be multipurpose recreation rooms for such activities as yoga, Zumba and Pilates.

The city plans to redevelop the old public school site into a community recreation center costing an estimated $13 million to $16 million.

Mayor Leonard Desiderio said during Hengchua’s presentation at the Aug.11 Council meeting that the community center is expected to open in spring 2023 if “all goes well.”

“We’re still moving forward with the expectation of making this a three-year project, with a grand opening in the spring of 2023,” Custer said.

The city initially estimated the cost at between $10 million and $15 million. In an interview Friday, Custer said the city now estimates the price tag at between $13 million and $16 million, but stressed that those figures are only preliminary.

“We still have a lot more work to do to hammer out the final cost estimate,” she said.

Desiderio has pledged that the city will work closely with the community for its feedback and guidance as the project moves along through different stages.

The city is planning to demolish the old public school at 4501 Park Road to make way for the community center. The school, which closed in 2012 due to Sea Isle’s declining student population, occupies the entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street.

Built above flood levels, the community center would occupy the same footprint as the former school. However, the front would face Central Avenue, unlike the old school’s main entrance overlooking Park Road. Hengchua said the building would be easy to enter and exit.

Throughout his Aug. 11 presentation, Hengchua focused on the building’s “multi-function” purpose for recreation, community events and meeting space. He said the layout would allow visitors to “mix and mingle together comfortably.”

“His main focus was to make this a community center, not just a gym alone,” Hengchua said of the ideas he got from Desiderio.

The city is shooting for a 2023 grand opening of the building. (Courtesy of Sea Isle City)

Custer described the project as the “last missing piece of the puzzle” in Sea Isle’s efforts to offer a combined recreation facility and community center that “will meet everyone’s needs.”

“We’re seeing more and more people come to Sea Isle every year. To have a community facility of this kind will enhance everyone’s Sea Isle experience,” she said.

A parking garage would be built underneath the two-story facility. The building would feature a brick superstructure and an expansive glass facade to let in plenty of natural light, Hengchua pointed out.

The recreation facility will not include an indoor swimming pool following overwhelming taxpayer opposition to that part of the project. The indoor pool was rejected in both a ballot referendum and an online survey conducted by the city last fall.