Wildwood attempting to polish its image Baseball stadium, convention center on N.J. resort's agenda


WILDWOOD, N.J. -- The boardwalk was empty. It was sunny, warm, slightly breezy, the kind of day that could turn an up-tight working stiff into Huck Finn. Yet not a soul was visible as far as the eye could see.

The pier amusements were idled behind steel gates, the Zoom Phloom and Sea Serpent stopped in their tracks and the gulls off in the distance, by the water's edge of the wide, wide beach. It looked like the ghost of boardwalks past.

In the old days on spring afternoons on the boardwalk, the police had to chase away truants playing ball, and couples wrapped in sweaters and each other would stroll the planks until sundown.

The hotels and motels would start sprucing up in March. But most are still closed. So is virtually everything else: the restaurants, the newsstands, even the pubs.

Unemployment rate 28%

The ones that can still afford to will faithfully reopen, of course, on Memorial Day. But how long can they keep this up? Wildwood (year-round population: 5,000) is suffering for being a three-month town. The unemployment rate is 28 percent, businesses keep closing, and people keep moving out. On streets just beyond the classic kitschy motels on Atlantic and Ocean Avenues, the "For Sale" signs look like pickets.

John Siciliano, for one, has faith. He must, as the executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Convention and Civic Center. "We're trying to market events that are beyond the three-month season, trying to push the season from three months to maybe five, from mid-March through mid-November," he said. In late September, for instance, the city is to be host to a monster truck show. "It's a phenomenal thing," Siciliano said.

There are grander plans for Wildwood, North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest. A baseball stadium and minor-league team for the 1998 season. A bigger, better convention center that will replace this outdated one, which has no meeting rooms. Lots of attention-getting ads in national magazines.

Once, this city sold itself. It had a name. It was the blue-collar Riviera, just about the most famous shore town in Jersey after Atlantic City. The investment portfolio-ed of Philadelphia, Delaware and parts north escaped to Cape May and its Victorian painted ladies. (Or to Stone Harbor, which is like St. John in the Virgin Islands, a half-secret). Everybody who was Everyman came here.

Teen-agers, especially, couldn't stay away. Well before senior week in mid-June, when graduates would pack the motels for their annual bacchanals, they would start trickling in on the first nice Saturday in March, trying to get into the bars with fake IDs and pubescent mustaches, crowding the piers.

But even the great gush of teen-agers has shrunk to a small stream. "They go to Cancun now," Siciliano said.

Tax base down sharply

The city's tax base has gone south, too. In recent years, Wildwood's tax base has fallen sharply while the rest of Cape May County's has increased. Even during the peak of the summer season, the 14,000 hotel and motel rooms cannot stay full.

What happened, no one can say for sure. It could be Wildwood played itself out. Fashionable vacation spots are like fashionable clothes. One year, clingy polyester blouses and skintight bell-bottoms are the ultimate cool. Five years later, they are the most embarrassing things ever made.

Wildwood officials blame Atlantic City casinos for their problems, which is why, two years ago, they came up with a plan to bring American Indian gambling to a parking lot. Chief Larry Snake of the Delaware tribe of western Oklahoma declared the 2]-acre municipal lot ancestral Indian land. A referendum to deed the lot to the tribe for a casino passed by a 2-to-1 margin, but Gov. Christine Todd Whitman brushed off the idea as though it were a mosquito on her nose.

Last year, Wildwood started a television campaign that beckoned visitors with a calypso-like jingle called "Welcome to Our Island." This year, Siciliano said, the city will expand modestly on the theme, with ads that mention the wide beaches, friendly people and fun on the piers.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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