The downtown district, with a smaller budget funded by business owners on the next couple of blocks inland from the sea, uses palm-themed street signs and business-recruitment committees to draw more traffic to Pacific Avenue.
Once Wildwood's business center, Pacific is a mixed 26-block strip of funky contemporary bars and restaurants (The Deck, Goodnight Irene's, Juan Pablo's), relocated year-round businesses like Crest Savings Bank (which was able to keep "lending through the recession" because it finances motel expansions instead of risky developer loans, says senior vice president Jodie DiEduardo), and empty lots (Pacific's vacancy rate is 29 percent).
Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano hopes the district's efforts will help attract more government millions - for ramps, a parking garage, and bus and bike parking zones to draw some of the Boardwalk's estimated nine million yearly visitors toward Pacific and other downtown streets.
He's also trying to stretch Wildwood's nostalgic appeal past the "doo-wop" 1950s as they recede into the past. (Morey's Piers' Jack Morey first applied the musical term to the period architecture it goes with, says Dan MacElrevey, owner of Ocean Property Management.)
Troiano says he wants to link Wildwood to 1970s and early-'80s nostalgia, noting that still-current acts such as Elton John and R.E.M. played in Wildwood, back when they were starting out.
The special-service districts mirror Philadelphia's Center City District and smaller copies in Manayunk, City Line, University City, and across New Jersey.
Why does Wildwood need such districts? Backers say they ease pressure on property-tax payers, who pay for basic city services such as public safety, and for promoting and protecting the city as a whole. Wildwood property taxes went up so fast in the early 2000s that Troiano was unseated in a 2009 recall backed by residential property owners.
But after Troiano's successor, Gary DeMarzo, tried to cut police to balance the budget, Wildwood voters turned him out and voted Troiano back into office last spring. To Troiano, it's a sign that the public endorses his philosophy: "To make money, you have to spend money. You have to improve." Or you die.
Wildwood is dominated by business and landlord families who have been here for two or three generations. But it's also attracting new blood - investors such as John Donio, who grew up laboring at the family fruit farms and produce sheds in Hammonton and went into business in 2000 as a Wildwood motel owner, plowing peach and blueberry proceeds into the former Pulaski Motor Inn.
Donio's predecessor used an auto-racing theme. Donio "souped it up a little," he told me. Brighter colors. Plastic palms. "I noticed a definite increase in the business right after," Donio said.
Donio, who supports the efforts to link the Boardwalk to downtown, has been in Wildwood long enough to have weathered more radical schemes. "There's no need for us to get a casino here to try to compete with Atlantic City," he told me. "Years ago people wanted to be more like Cape May. Why? We'll be who we are. We're a blue-collar town. My repeat business speaks for itself."
Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 and JoeD@phillynews.com.