By Donald Wittkowski
Over the years, a landmark building in Sea Isle City that dates to the late 1800s has hosted concerts, dances, beauty pageants, church services, pancake breakfasts, flea markets, holiday celebrations and much, much more.
But the Townsends Inlet Civic Center now finds itself threatened by possible foreclosure stemming from the alleged failure of its private owner to maintain its tax-exempt status.
Hoping that the community will come to the civic center’s rescue, the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association has sent a letter to local residents appealing to them for donations to help it pay its tax bill. City spokeswoman Katherine Custer said the civic center owes $45,750 in unpaid taxes and interest.
The city disclosed the civic center’s financial troubles in a public notice posted on the municipality’s website last week. The notice says the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association must pay the full amount of the tax lien to avoid foreclosure.
The city emphasizes that anyone who is thinking of helping the civic center cannot make a partial payment toward the tax bill.
“Pursuant to State law, the City can only accept full and complete payment of a lien at one time. Anyone desiring to make a partial payment will not be able to do so,” the notice says.
The notice also clarifies that the city has no role in the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association’s appeal for financial help, despite the civic center using the Sea Isle municipal logo as part of its return address for donations.
According to the city, the association failed to maintain its tax-exempt status several years ago, forcing Sea Isle to begin taxing the civic center property as required by law. Afterward, the association fell behind in paying the taxes.
“After legally prescribed time frames, and proper notices provided to the T.I. Improvement Association, the delinquent tax certificate was sold at tax sale, in accordance with New Jersey law,” the city’s notice says. “In order for the T.I. Improvement Association to prevent a potential foreclosure of the property, they must pay the full amount of the outstanding tax lien.”
The city says it is willing to work with the association “to the fullest extent possible” to try to resolve the unpaid taxes. Custer, however, stressed that the city has no involvement in the civic center’s operations or fundraising efforts.
“These are private events on private land. It is not on city land,” Custer said.
The civic center is located on 85th Street about a block from the beach. There are signs in the windows that say “This place matters.”
In the meantime, the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association has circulated a letter and petition urging local residents to help the center overcome its tax difficulties.
“Together, we can save it because there are thousands of us homeowners who can contribute as little or as much as they can afford,” the letter says.
The lengthy letter also chronicles the center’s history as a cultural landmark, community hub and entertainment venue. It says the building was “founded by Ulysses S. Grant with its sole purpose to benefit the community.”
A weather-beaten plaque on the center’s facade indicates that the building dates to “circa 1888.” Grant, the former Civil War Union general who went on to become president of the United States from 1869 to 1877, died in 1885, three years before the building supposedly opened.
Attempts to reach the Townsends Inlet Improvement Association for comment were unsuccessful. City officials said it remains unclear who is in charge of the association following the death last year of Louise Clemente, the driving force behind the civic center for years.
The association’s letter urges residents to make a donation toward the civic center’s unpaid tax bill to help fulfill “Louise’s dream.”
“Louise’s last wish was that the T.I. Civic Center continue to benefit the community of Sea Isle, as it has done for over a century,” it says.
Christopher Glancey, president of the Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization, said there are growing fears in the community that the building will be demolished and redeveloped for duplexes if the foreclosure action is completed.
Glancey noted that the chamber tried to work with Clemente in the past on ways to save the civic center, but was unsuccessful.
“We got no response. We never got anywhere with Louise,” he said.
The chamber still wants to try to help the civic center stay in business, but its efforts have been made even more difficult by confusion over the building’s leadership following Clemente’s death, Glancey said.
“We definitely would like to see it stay as a civic center,” he said.