Plans are unfolding to turn Sea Isle's old public school into a community recreation center.

By Donald Wittkowski

They are both throwbacks to a bygone era.

Over the years, these once-indispensable public buildings in Sea Isle City have faded into obscurity and left the community wondering what to do with them – save them or tear them down?

For one building, the crumbling old firehouse on 42nd Place, the answer is clear: It will be demolished.

However, the other aging landmark, the Sea Isle City Public School, may become a centerpiece of the community again, although in a different iteration. There are tentative plans to turn it into a community recreation center.

At its Jan. 24 meeting, City Council approved a $19,500 contract to prepare the old firehouse for demolition. Environmental plans must be developed to safely remove asbestos from the building before it is torn down.

Also at the meeting, Council approved a $29,500 architectural contract that will look at ways to transform the old school on Park Road into a recreation site.

The two-story firehouse, which dates to the early 1900s, has become deteriorated over the years and is apparently beyond saving.

“The building is in such disrepair that it’s getting to the point of being structurally unsound,” Council President William Kehner said.

In 1978, the old firehouse was replaced by a new public safety building on John F. Kennedy Boulevard that housed the police and fire departments, city spokeswoman Katherine Custer said. Then in 2015, Sea Isle’s new City Hall became the headquarters for the fire department.

The Tourism Office moved into the old firehouse in 1993 and made the building its home until it shifted operations into the city’s new Welcome Center when it opened in 2012. Since then, the old building has been used for storage by the city’s Public Works Department and the Beach Patrol, Custer said.

Although the firehouse will be demolished, the property may continue to be used by the city. Sea Isle’s updated master plan recommends converting the firehouse site into some type of recreation.

The deteriorated old firehouse, which dates to the early 1900s, will be demolished.
The deteriorated old firehouse, which dates to the early 1900s, will be demolished.

The master plan also recommends transforming the old public school into recreation, but on a much grander scale. The school, built in 1971, occupies an entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street.

Such a large chunk of property could prove to be very valuable for housing development. However, the school land is zoned for administrative and public use, which prohibits condominiums or other housing projects from being built there, according to the Board of Education.

The school closed in 2012 due to the city’s declining student enrollment. Sea Isle’s students are now sent to the Ocean City school district for their education.

Ironically, an annex consisting of three trailers was added to the back of the school in the 1980s to accommodate what was then the city’s growing student population. Now weather-beaten, those trailers will be demolished as the city begins the planning process for turning the school into a recreation site.

“I think we’ve all agreed that it’s going to be recreation of some sort,” Councilwoman Mary Tighe said.

An architectural study will determine whether the existing school should be converted into a recreation center or whether a new building should be constructed. Adding an indoor community pool to the site will also be considered. The price tag is expected to be well into the millions of dollars.

During a tour of the school last year, Board of Education President Dan Tumolo described parts of the building that would need upgrading to convert it into a recreation center. They ranged from cosmetic changes such as a new gym floor to major upgrades that would include air-conditioning, new windows and reconfiguring the walls.

A community survey conducted by the city in 2015 asked 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.

The survey also asked the public for recommendations on the types of activities or programs that should be included if the school becomes a recreation site. More than half of the respondents, or 52 percent, wanted a gymnasium, followed by teen activities (49 percent) and senior-citizen programs (43 percent).

The possibility of building an indoor pool at the school generated the highest number of written comments. Among the suggestions, 47 of the respondents said they wanted a community center with a pool, while four others were against a pool.

Although the building no longer functions as a school, it is not dead space. The gym is open to the public during the summer for basketball games. The gym is also used as the location for the city’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration.

The Board of Education holds its public meetings in the school. In the winter, the city’s Recreation Department uses the school for office space.

In addition, the school has been designated as an emergency storm shelter. The city also uses the building for storage space.