By DONALD WITTKOWSKI and MADDY VITALE
The buyer of the Springfield Inn won approval from the Sea Isle City Zoning Board to demolish the iconic, yet dilapidated nightclub and replace it with an island-themed outdoor bar and restaurant just steps from the beach.
GMH Restaurant Holdings III is planning an upscale transformation of the beachfront property that would be nothing like the no-frills Springfield Inn that occupied the site for nearly 50 years.
Live palm trees, decorative landscaping, tiki bars and an 8-foot-high bamboo fence surrounding the site will create an island-like atmosphere at the new attraction, called The Point at Sea Isle City, the developer said.
“We believe this is something we will build here that is so user-friendly and so different. It is really a beautiful scene,” GMH founder Gary Holloway told the zoning board. “The palm trees we replace every year. The environment is really a unique situation and the music is awesome and the food is incredible.”
Holloway noted that the Sea Isle project will be modeled after a similar palm tree-dotted, beach-themed outdoor bar in Somers Point, also known as The Point.
In a 5-0 vote that capped a three-hour hearing Tuesday night, the zoning board gave its approval for the project.
“We have this board of adjustment for a reason and this is a primary example of looking and saying, ‘Hey, what’s best for the town?’” zoning member Bill McGinn said while giving his endorsement to the project.
The board also granted a handful of zoning variances requested by GMH to make the project happen. The main variance allows the project to be built in a zoning district that had previously excluded outdoor restaurants.
Closed since September 2019, the Springfield Inn has been on the market for $6.7 million. Its coveted beachfront location at 43rd Street and Pleasure Avenue makes it a strong candidate for redevelopment. It is the only beachfront business in Sea Isle that has a liquor license.
It is not immediately clear how much Holloway is paying or whether he has completed the purchase yet. When he first disclosed his plans to buy the property during remarks at a City Council meeting on Oct. 27, he said he had reached “an exclusive letter of intent” to acquire the Springfield Inn from the current owners.
The Bisciotti family has owned the Springfield Inn since it opened in 1972. Sisters Betsy Cooney, Terry Eidenberg and Joanne Bisciotti followed their parents, Joe and Liz Bisciotti, as the Springfield’s owners.
For the past year, the Springfield Inn and its outdoor Carousel Bar have sat empty, deteriorating in the process. The city issued a “Notice of Unsafe Structure” in October that ordered the current owners to either repair or demolish the crumbling structure.
Holloway and his team of professionals assured the zoning board that GMH plans to demolish the Springfield Inn shortly after the company takes control of the property.
“The entire property is in an extreme state of disrepair,” said John Halbruner, an architect and engineer representing GMH.
Plans call for construction to begin right after the Springfield Inn is torn down. Holloway has indicated that the outdoor bar and restaurant will open in time for the 2021 summer season.
“We look forward to working closely with the community, neighbors, and the city to obtain approvals and begin what is certain to be an exciting and welcome transformation of the former Springfield site. The plan is to be open for business by May, 2021,” he said in a statement.
GMH’s redevelopment plan is far less intensive than another project that had been proposed by a previous would-be buyer of the Springfield.
Springfield Inn closed on Sept. 21, 2019, in anticipation of its sale then to a Pennsylvania-based development group called HKM43 LLC. The group wanted to demolish the old building to make room for a new three-story complex featuring a restaurant, outdoor bar, banquet hall and condos. The deal with HKM43 later fell through, allowing GMH to buy the property.
Holloway and Halbruner repeatedly stressed that The Point will feature more open space and far less density than the project proposed by HKM43, making it more palatable to the surrounding residential neighborhood.
“Remember, we don’t want to be a building. We want to be an open-park setting,” Halbruner told the zoning board.
The zoning board meeting was conducted online amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the public were given an opportunity to ask questions about the project and make comments.
Some homeowners living near the Springfield Inn expressed concern that the new outdoor bar and restaurant would be too noisy and would not blend in with the neighborhood.
“You’re talking about putting this right in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” said Claudia Vanderslice, an opponent of the project who lives in the 4400 Beach Condominium complex next door to the Springfield Inn site.
Nancy Brewer-Carlsen, another opponent of the project who lives at the 4400 Beach Condominium, said she is worried that The Point will start a trend in Sea Isle for “massive outside party bars.”
Tony Desderio, president of the 4400 Beach Condominium Association board, also voiced concerns about the loud music and noise levels that will come from The Point.
However, Desderio said that a majority of the association board has voted to support the project because Holloway has personally pledged to work with the condo owners to minimize the noise and address other concerns they may raise.
Both sides have discussed the possibility of building a sound barrier between the bar and the condo complex to lessen the noise, Desderio added.
Holloway said The Point will strictly adhere to Sea Isle’s noise ordinances. He also pointed out that live music will stop at 9 p.m. and that the bar and restaurant will close at 11 p.m.
The project represents a new wave of upscale development catering to the beach town’s higher-end tourism market. Supporters said it should help to draw new visitors to Sea Isle and boost the local economy.
“It is a great addition for the center of town. It is the kind of project you want to see and the kind of project we have been seeing come here,” said Christopher Glancey, a local developer and business owner who formerly served as president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization.
Dan McCann, a local attorney whose family owns a real estate and home construction business, said he believes The Point “checks all of the boxes” for being another centerpiece of Sea Isle’s tourism industry.
“They will clean up this corner and rejuvenate this area. If you look at the progress in that area, we feel it will increase property values and increase foot traffic. And from what I heard, I am excited about what the project will mean and what it means to the downtown,” McCann said.