By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Some residents believe it would be too expensive. Others say it would be well worth the money. Still others want to see the project revised for a lower cost.
There were mixed opinions among Sea Isle City residents about a proposed $20 million community recreation center during a two-hour town hall meeting Saturday organized by Mayor Leonard Desiderio to discuss a project that could be a centerpiece of the town for decades to come.
Although most residents who spoke publicly about the project indicated they are in favor of it, they also expressed concerns about the overall cost, the impact on local tax rates and whether the community center would be used enough by a community of 2,100 year-round residents to justify the price tag.
“To put $20 million into a facility that nobody will use doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Ed Litwa, a resident who noted that he supports the concept of having a community center in Sea Isle at a lower cost.
Former City Councilman John Divney also favors Sea Isle having a community center, but joined Litwa in arguing that the project would be too expensive.
Divney said he believes a $20 million price tag is “in the clouds” and wants the city to conduct an analysis of the cost and how much the building would be used by local residents.
“I think we’re overbuilding. I’m concerned about utilization,” he said. “Utilization is the biggest obstacle we have in front of us.”
Some other residents, though, urged city officials to move ahead with the project without further delay.
Andy Ferrilli, a commercial builder in town, predicted the cost of the community center would only increase the longer the city waited to build it. He also cautioned the city about possibly downsizing the project to reduce costs, saying that Sea Isle could end up with a “Five and Dime building.”
“I think this town needs to take the blinders off and bite the bullet,” Ferrilli said.
Rosemary Feola, another resident, told city officials that Sea Isle needs the community center to create more activities for children and young adults to do. She said she doesn’t want to live in Sea Isle if “there’s nothing here.”
“I’m sorry. I’m tired of waiting to start the building,” Feola said, expressing her frustration with construction delays.
Mark Rose, a member of Sea Isle’s Recreation Committee and strong supporter of the project, said he is worried that city officials will continue to talk about the community center “until it dies.”
The benefit of the project for the community, Rose said, is that it “will last for many, many years.”
Another resident, Sue Williamson, said she had originally hoped that the community center would have an indoor pool if it cost $20 million. A community survey conducted in 2019 resulted in local property owners voting overwhelmingly against a pool.
Now, Williamson said she believes that the city should look for ways to reduce the cost of the project and undertake a redesign of the building’s exterior.
“I think it’s an eyesore the way it looks,” she said. “I would love to see the (exterior) go back to the drawing board.”
About 25 residents and property owners asked questions or commented about the project during the meeting, which was attended by more than 100 people at the city’s Community Lodge. Questions or comments were also read aloud from several other people who watched the meeting on Facebook.
As mayor, Desiderio is hoping to line up support from local taxpayers and members of City Council to move forward with his plans to demolish the city’s former public school and redevelop the property at 4501 Park Road into a complex that would serve as both a recreation facility and community center.
“We want it to fit into the neighborhood and be something that we can be proud of,” Desiderio said in opening remarks during the meeting.
Plans have been moving slowly in the past two years while Desiderio’s administration has worked with an architect to design the community center amid questions about the proposed cost, the impact on the tax rate and how often the facility would be used by the local population and summer tourists.
“We truly believe it will be utilized very, very well,” Katherine Custer, the city’s director of Community Services and public information officer, told the audience.
Leon Costello, the city’s auditor, said that Sea Isle could easily finance the project with bonds without coming near the town’s debt ceiling.
Costello also said the project would have only a “minimal impact” on the local tax rate. He estimated that the owner of a home assessed at $1 million would pay about $90 annually in extra local property taxes to help finance the project.
He also said the city could build the community center without jeopardizing other projects that are part of Sea Isle’s overall capital plan, including flood-mitigation improvements to protect the low-lying island from stormwater.
“The city will continue to be able to do capital projects, in addition to this project,” Costello said.
City Council dealt the project a setback in October when it deadlocked 2-2 on a bond ordinance to finance the community center. It was far short of the “super majority” of four affirmative votes required to authorize a bond ordinance for the funding package.
Council members Jack Gibson and Mary Tighe voted no, while William Kehner and J.B. Feeley supported the proposal. Councilman Frank Edwardi did not attend the October meeting, but has since indicated he supports the project and would vote to finance it.
Gibson and Tighe said they support the concept of a new community recreation center at the old school site but raised objections about the cost. They noted that the estimated price tag had climbed from $15 million to $20 million this year alone amid rising costs for lumber and other building materials during the pandemic.
In public remarks at the town hall meeting Saturday, Tighe repeated her belief that the project “is a lot of money,” but indicated she would likely give her support the next time Council takes a vote on a bond ordinance.
“We can afford a $20 million project,” she said.
At the same time, Tighe stressed that Council will be seeking more information from Desiderio’s administration about the community center’s operating costs.
Gibson did not speak at the town hall meeting but noted in an interview afterward that he remains “open” to the possibility of building the community center.
“I didn’t hear anything today that would make me less open,” he said of the presentation by city representatives.
Assuming the project receives final approval, City Business Administrator George Savastano said construction would start in summer 2022 and take 15 to 18 months to complete.
Hoping to reduce the proposed cost, Desiderio’s administration has scaled back the original designs to eliminate plans for an auditorium and a cafeteria inside the community recreation center.
According to preliminary plans, the new facility would include a large gymnasium featuring a regulation-size basketball court that could also be converted into pickleball courts and a volleyball court.
Overlooking the gym on the building’s second level would be a “skywalk” for walking and jogging.
The first floor would also have a workout room for such activities as yoga, Zumba and Pilates.
There would also be space in the building that local community groups could use for meetings, events and other activities.
The community center would also include parking both underneath the building and at ground level next to it.
The former public school, meanwhile, would be demolished to make room for the community center. The old school property occupies the entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street, giving Sea Isle a large footprint to build the new project.