By Donald Wittkowski
The Townsends Inlet Civic Center, a community hub and one of Sea Isle City’s most historic buildings, has been saved from foreclosure after the owner paid more than $50,000 in back taxes, city officials said.
The surprising development followed months of uncertainty over the fate of the building and a desperate appeal by the owner, the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association, for public contributions to pay the tax bill.
Recently, the front of the building had been plastered with signs urgently telling the public, “You can save the T.I. Civic Center before they foreclose.”
Another sign in a front window says, “Get the kids to help!”
But on Dec. 19, a representative of the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association paid off $51,758 in back taxes to rescue it from foreclosure, said Paula Doll, Sea Isle’s tax collector and chief financial officer.
“The foreclosure threat is obviously removed,” Doll said in an interview Friday.
Once a community, entertainment and cultural landmark, the civic center has been 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.
An entity called Pro Cap 4 LLC had acquired the civic center’s tax certificate in a tax sale after the association fell behind in its taxes. The tax certificate is a lien against the property and had given Pro Cap 4 the power to foreclose on the property and take possession. But Pro Cap 4 is no longer involved with the civic center following the payment of the back taxes, Doll said.
The civic center is one of Sea Isle’s most historic landmarks. A plaque on the facade indicates the building dates to 1888. For decades, the center hosted concerts, dances, beauty pageants, church services, pancake breakfasts, flea markets, holiday celebrations and many other special events.
City officials said it remains unclear who is in charge of the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association following the death in 2016 of Louise Clemente, the driving force behind the civic center for years.
Doll said Robert Clemente, Louise Clemente’s son, paid the tax bill. Efforts to reach Robert Clemente for comment were unsuccessful.
Clemente was accompanied by a local resident, Irene Bukowski, when he paid the bill. In an interview Friday, Bukowski said she is Clemente’s friend, but stressed that she has nothing to do with the civic center and has no idea what will become of the building now that the tax bill has been paid.
Kevin Lavan, a Sea Isle summer resident and civic center proponent who started a Facebook page to rally community support for the building, expressed relief that the back taxes were paid.
“That’s fantastic. I’m thrilled,” he said.
Lavan had feared that the building would be demolished and redeveloped into condominiums if it had fallen into foreclosure and sold off.
“I just hated to see it turned into condos,” he said.
The building is located on 85th Street about a block from the beach, a prime location that could be tempting to condominium developers. The surrounding area is zoned for mixed-use development.
George Savastano, Sea Isle’s business administrator, said mixed-used zoning would give developers the option of building a commercial project or condos in place of the civic center if its ownership changed hands.
However, Savastano said the city is “happy” that the civic center has been rescued from foreclosure and hopes it will remain a community asset.
“It’s obviously important to a significant segment of the community,” he said of the civic center’s history as a local landmark.
Savastano noted that the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association has indicated it will file papers in hopes of regaining its tax-exempt status for the civic center.
Lavan played Santa Claus during Christmas events at the civic center in 2015 and 2016. He said the building will likely need repairs if it is to remain a community hub. Among the problems are a leaky ceiling and bathrooms and entranceways that are not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, he said.
In recent months, 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.