By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Polar Bear Plunge or not, Sea Isle City officials are predicting a blockbuster holiday for Presidents Day weekend in 2022.
For 25 years, thousands of visitors have descended on Sea Isle during the winter holiday for its signature Polar Bear Plunge celebration, a weekend of partying, shopping and dining capped off by a madcap dip in the chilly ocean.
However, a new policy by Sea Isle that bars privately run events, such as the Polar Bear Plunge, from using city streets, parking lots and municipal facilities likely means the end of thousands of people simultaneously jumping into the ocean over Presidents Day weekend.
Mayor Leonard Desiderio, whose administration made the policy change, believes that the holiday weekend will still draw big crowds to Sea Isle – even without the plunge.
“We would really be naive if we didn’t think people were coming for a good time,” Desiderio told members of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization during a luncheon meeting Tuesday at Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant.
Desiderio predicted visitors will be eager for a weekend getaway at the shore after being cooped up at home for most of the winter.
“It’s primed to be a fabulous weekend. No one is going to be hurt,” Desiderio said, referring to the strong holiday business expected at the local retail shops, restaurants and bars.
The holiday weekend traditionally gives Sea Isle a huge economic boost at a time when the Jersey Shore is usually mired in its winter slumber. Shops, restaurants and bars reopen especially for the weekend, grabbing enough business to sustain them until spring’s arrival.
“It gets busy regardless of whether we call it the plunge or not,” Chamber of Commerce President Brian Heritage said.
Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant, predicted that Presidents Day weekend 2022 will be so busy that customers will have to make reservations at Sea Isle’s restaurants at least two weeks in advance if they want to guarantee themselves a table.
“The people are coming,” Monichetti said.
Monichetti annually sponsors the Mike’s Seafood Polar Bear Run-Walk for Autism over the plunge weekend. But he held a virtual run-walk last February to raise money for autism awareness during the height of the pandemic.
The run-walk raised $140,000 in 2021 for autism programs and children with special needs, Monichetti said. He announced during the Chamber luncheon that he is also planning a virtual autism run-walk in 2022.
No official announcement has been made yet about the 2022 Polar Bear Plunge by James Bennett, a local restaurant owner and organizer of the event.
Bennett said in an earlier interview that he is still weighing his options based on the city’s new policy prohibiting private events from using city streets and parking lots.
Bennett previously used his former bar, the LaCosta Lounge, as the staging area and entertainment venue for the Polar Bear Plunge events. For the plunge itself, thousands of revelers would march across the street to head to the beaches and ocean from the LaCosta site at the corner of John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Landis Avenue, in the heart of downtown Sea Isle.
However, the LaCosta Lounge was sold in 2018 to new owners and went through a rebranding this summer into the new tropical-themed Beach Bar at the Ludlam Hotel.
Bennett also owns the Oar House Pub on 42nd Place, a few blocks from the ocean. The Oar House Pub does not have the same amount of property as the former LaCosta Lounge for private entertainment events associated with the Polar Bear Plunge.
As previously reported by SeaIsleNews.com, the city explained to the local business community in a Sept. 8 letter that the change in policy was made because private events were causing a strain on municipal services.
“City sanctioned programming which has traditionally occurred inside and/or outside City facilities will continue as in the past,” the letter says of Sea Isle’s public events and entertainment. “However, privately sponsored events requiring or seeking to utilize City streets, parking lots, or inside and/or outside facilities are no longer permitted.”
Desiderio noted that the city is also looking to limit its potential liability to lawsuits stemming from private events held on public property.
“That is because of the liability that could come to the city,” he told the Chamber of Commerce members.
The death of a Pennsylvania woman who fell in the frigid water at Sea Isle’s municipal marina during Polar Bear Plunge weekend in 2009 was a factor in the new policy, City Solicitor Paul Baldini said.
Tracy Hottenstein, 35, of Conshohocken, Pa., died of hypothermia complicated by acute alcohol intoxication after she fell in the cold water at the marina, authorities concluded.
Hottenstein’s family filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 accusing Sea Isle City, its police department, local medical personnel and others with either contributing to her death or doing nothing to prevent it, but a judge later dismissed the claims.
Although Sea Isle no longer wants to be involved with privately run events – especially those having alcohol – the city plans to continue its own lineup of concerts, festivals, shows and other entertainment throughout the year.
The Sept. 8 letter goes on to say that private events that are sponsored by nonprofit organizations for charity and do not involve alcohol will be reviewed “on a case by case basis” to see if they would have only a small impact on city streets, parking lots and municipal facilities.
In other business at the Chamber meeting, Monichetti warned of continuing labor shortages that could pose serious challenges to local businesses for the foreseeable future.
Sea Isle and other Jersey Shore communities struggled to find enough seasonal help over the summer, even more so than usual. Monichetti said COVID-related delays for foreign students who normally travel to the shore for summer work have added to the labor shortage.
“It’s going to be a tough road to hoe. I don’t know where we’re going to go,” Monichetti said of the labor challenges.
Desiderio, who owns the Kix-McNutley’s bar and nightclub in Sea Isle, said employee shortages over the summer forced him to occasionally work as a bartender, cleaner, delivery person and clerk at his business.
“I tell people I did jobs I haven’t done in 40 years,” he said.
In the meantime, businesses suffering from labor shortages are “learning to do more with less,” Desiderio said.
Supply-chain problems caused by the pandemic made matters even more challenging for local businesses, he pointed out. For instance, he said he even had trouble getting popular brands of beer at Kix-McNutley’s.