There are brand-new kiddie rides and water amusements from Point Pleasant Beach to Wildwood. And everywhere in between, on boardwalks and main streets, there are new restaurants and fun new shops galore. Even a couple of new wineries have opened for business in lower Cape May County.
For many who call the Shore home for their businesses - even if it's just for the summer - they know they've got a mere 14 weeks or so to put themselves in the black. From the beach towns that need to rake in the cash from fees now to keep the lights on come winter, to the college kid waitressing at a pizza joint to buy textbooks in the fall, it's make-it-or-break-it time.
"We are seeing millions of dollars in new investment . . . in a way we really haven't seen here in years," said Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Tourism Department. "I think this year could really be a game-changer in terms of an upward trend."
In what is probably the most comprehensive collection of data on businesses and tourists at the Shore, Wieland's office keeps its finger on the pulse of towns from Ocean City to Cape May through annual surveys and questionnaires. Participants are asked everything from how much a business spends on promotion to whether a visitor will ever return.
So far this year, things are looking good, Wieland said. Inquiries on the county's visitor website are up 22 percent over the same time last year. About 60 percent of those who answered a visitor survey last summer said they couldn't wait to come back this year. And one in four tourists conceded that they'd be willing to spend more money next time around on lodging, meals, shopping, or other activities.
No one can forecast how the summer season will play out. Weather plays a key role, as well as tourist perceptions of the Shore. Bad publicity such as the recent double stabbing of two Canadian tourists in Atlantic City can have an effect.
"Businesspeople here understand," Wieland said, "that if they want to keep being relevant . . . profitable, they have to keep upping the ante."
As many as two dozen businesses and amusements in Cape May County this year have either opened or made significant improvements in time for the start of summer, Wieland said, as the 19 million annual visitors are expected to be begin rolling in.
Business revenue in Cape May County was up 4.5 percent in 2011 over the previous year - even when Hurricane Irene abruptly ended the tourist season just before the traditional lucrative Labor Day weekend, Wieland said.
Gains all along the coast last summer may have inspired some existing businesses to reinvest some of that profit. Morey's Piers in Wildwood has spent $6 million on water-park improvements. One of the largest private employers at the Shore with about 1,500 seasonal employees, Morey's also is sinking $10 million into building a six-story, 140-unit hotel called the Grand Wildwoodian, set to open next summer.
The evolving Shore economy also is inspiring newcomers to dip their toes in the water.
Ron Gorodesky said he and his business partners applied a "build-it-and-they-will-come" logic in their multimillion project: They broke ground Thursday on a 37-room luxury boutique hotel called the Reeds at Shelter Haven. Located at 96th Street and Third Avenue in Stone Harbor, the new hotel is set to open next summer.
"This is a project that has been on the shelf for 10 years," said Gorodesky, managing director of the project. "Certainly, there is a renewed interest and investment in the Shore."
Although the economy - even in premium waterfront locations - has had its ups and downs in recent years, Gorodesky contends that there is always a willingness to invest in a place like Stone Harbor.
With sweeping waterfront views and a refined interior aesthetic, the new hotel will sit on the same property where the historic Shelter Haven Hotel opened 100 years ago this summer. The new hotel will feature concierge service - a rarity in the area - and upscale banquet facilities for weddings and other functions.
"What we'll be providing here is a home away from home for visitors to the Shore looking for a distinctive experience along the southern coast of New Jersey," Gorodesky said. "We think that people in this area are looking for this sort of experience."
That's the idea that inspired vintners at the new Jessie Creek Winery, which opened this spring in Cape May Court House. Also joining a half-dozen similar enterprises in the area this year are Willow Creek Winery in West Cape May and Cape May Brewing Co. in Rio Grande.
"You have to be willing to get out there and do something . . . take a chance," said Art Reale, who opened Jessie Creek with his business partner, Bruce Morrison, a Huntingdon Valley, Pa., physician.
"We're extremely happy with how well business has been going so far. People are coming in for tastings and buying wine. I think it's going to be a very good summer," said Reale, who moved back to the area four years ago from Florida after his employer's construction business failed and Morrison invited him to start a vineyard.
While the pair waited for their vines to mature, they also operated a bed-and-breakfast in a charming circa 1846 farmhouse on the Route 47 property.
Increased revenue numbers of towns along the 44-mile stretch of Ocean County's coastline, from Point Pleasant Beach to Long Beach Island, were similar to revenues at other Shore destinations, though reinvestment or new investment doesn't seem as dramatic there, said Barbara Steele, director of the Ocean County Department of Tourism.
"But I think there is a positive outlook going forward for our businesspeople," Steele said. "Because of the weather we've had this spring, the summer has come on early and very warm. People are getting out and spending money."
Follow Philly.com all weekend for live coverage of the opening of the Shore season, featuring:
The opening of Revel, Atlantic City's newest casino, including reviews from Dan DeLuca on Beyoncé, and Howie Shapiro on
a stay at the resort.
Guides of what
to do in the region and at the Shore.
Photos from the Shore and the city - and historic images of the Shore's past as
far back as 1926.
Contact Jacqueline L Urgo
at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.