Unscathed Jersey Shore communities spread word that they're open for tourism

City Hall in Ocean City, N.J., is all decked out for the season. Though Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, mainly farther north along the Jersey Shore, Atlantic and Cape May Counties are in good shape for the holidays.
City Hall in Ocean City, N.J., is all decked out for the season. Though Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, mainly farther north along the Jersey Shore, Atlantic and Cape May Counties are in good shape for the holidays. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 01, 2012

CAPE MAY - Walking around this Victorian resort, decorated gaily for the holidays, Mark Twain might have found a kindred spirit. In these parts, at least, reports of the Jersey Shore's death after Sandy have been greatly exaggerated.

No, the precipitously placed Cove Restaurant didn't wash away during the Oct. 29 hurricane, the iconic lighthouse isn't gone, and the ornate wood moldings known as gingerbread that grace many of the 1800's buildings remain mostly intact. In fact, they're now covered in Christmas lights.

Just north, roller coasters in Wildwood and Ocean City still stand, unlike Seaside Heights' now-famous, partially submerged Star Jet. Unaffected amusement pier operators are selling their annual stocking stuffers: discounted ride tickets for next summer.

Concerned that a post-Sandy poll found 41 percent of U.S. respondents believed that the entire Atlantic City Boardwalk had been destroyed in the storm, tourism and marketing officials there launched a national advertising campaign Wednesday to counter "sensationalized" and "out-of-context" news and social media reports that created the impression.

Only a tiny, unpopulated section of the wooden way, already slated for demolition, met its demise. Officials hope a full-page ad in the New York Times, supplemental digital and e-mail advertising, and TV spots in major markets will set the record straight.

Sandy did cause an unprecedented $36.8 billion in damage in New Jersey, mostly in the coastal areas of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, destroying 30,000 homes and businesses. A twist of weather fate left areas to the south in Atlantic and Cape May Counties in better shape, creating a tourism marketing conundrum, officials say.

"We are very sensitive to the fact that there is so much devastation and destruction to our north. ... We know that could have been us," said Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism. "So it's a very fine line we walk promoting our events and businesses."

Largely because of the misconceptions, Wieland and others have concluded it's imperative for the parts of the Shore less affected by Sandy to continue promotion. A push called "Restore the Shore," which has a conference Monday at the Cape May Convention Hall, will aim to bring visitors back to patronize the mom-and-pop businesses that constitute much of New Jersey's $38 billion-a-year tourism industry.

The conference also will focus on directing social media reports that can help, rather than hinder, recovery efforts, she said.

"People in Florida or out West or in Canada see that picture of the Seaside Heights roller coaster and they think that's all of us ... but it's not," Wieland said.

"If they don't understand that there are still many viable places at the Shore open for business that can still provide them with that great Jersey Shore vacation experience they are looking for, they'll count us all out," she said. "And they might go somewhere else - like Virginia Beach - and like it. And then our entire state loses out."

That's why the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities (MAC) in Cape May is pushing forward with its 39th annual Christmas Candlelight House Tours and other seasonal events. The event, which began Nov. 17, has been canceled only once in four decades, then because of snowy weather.

It pulls in about 21,000 visitors and accounts for about 10 percent of the nonprofit's annual operating budget, said Susan Krysiak, a MAC spokeswoman.

MAC has been inundated with phone calls from potential visitors asking everything from "whether the town is still here" to whether the tours are still taking place, Krysiak said. Still, the numbers are off by only about 8 percent from last year at the time for prepaid bookings.

"A lot of people want come to Cape May at Christmas because it is so beautiful and such a special place, where you really can escape and forget your troubles, even this year with all the upheaval and devastation," Krysiak said. "But the images they are seeing of the Shore are so stirring ... so jarring. They see the national news coverage and wonder if we're even still here."

Krysiak tried to stay ahead of false reports about Cape May's destruction by posting photos on Flickr and other sites, she said.

In Sea Isle City, which had some storm damage along its beaches and promenade, the town kicked off its "Season of Giving" last weekend with an ice-skating and tree-lighting extravaganza that attracted thousands of visitors despite the storm, said Katherine Custer, a city spokeswoman.

The events coincided with a holiday toy and food drive to benefit Sandy victims, and the town gave 10 storm-victim families complimentary house rentals and restaurant meals for the weekend.

In Ocean City, floodwaters deluged the main street and damaged 100 stores, but about 85 percent of them have reopened. The town has put on a fresh face, with new Christmas lights and decorations meant to give the six-block-long downtown an old-fashioned feeling, said Marcia Shallcross, executive director of Main Street Ocean City.

There will also be horse-drawn carriage rides, costumed carolers, and other events on weekends through the holidays, Shallcross said.

"We want people to know we are back . . . that we're open and ready for business," she said. "This is a place to come back to, to get that true sense of an old-fashioned community that really had to pull together and bring itself back after Sandy."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382, jurgo@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JacquelineUrgo. Read the Jersey Shore blog, "Downashore," at www.philly.com/downashore.

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