Boardwalks are Job 1 as Shore towns rebuild

The boardwalk in Seaside Heights took a brutal hit from Hurricane Sandy. Officials there expect to approve a rebuilding contract Thursday night.
The boardwalk in Seaside Heights took a brutal hit from Hurricane Sandy. Officials there expect to approve a rebuilding contract Thursday night. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: January 03, 2013

For some, a boardwalk conjures up memories of summer afternoons running from beach to arcade and back again; for others, it brings to mind the chaotic nightlife chronicled in the reality show Jersey Shore.

But for the summer towns that dot New Jersey's coast, boardwalks are an economic lifeline that they are rushing to rebuild before the summer season starts in just under six months.

"The boardwalk will be back," vowed Seaside Heights Councilman Tony Vaz. "It has to be. We have to survive."

Along the Shore's northern half, tens of millions of dollars in construction projects are in the works to repair iconic boardwalks largely obliterated when Sandy hit the coastline Oct. 29.

Construction has begun on Asbury Park's well-chronicled planks; last month, Belmar awarded a $6.6 million contract to rebuild its 1.3 miles of boardwalk. And Seaside Heights officials expect to approve a rebuilding contract Thursday night.

Tourism is a $38 billion-a-year industry in New Jersey, and the Jersey Shore is estimated to account for about half of that.

For better or worse, the boardwalks, which date to the late 1800s, are the symbol of summertime.

"It's key to tourism. The boardwalk with the games and the rides, that's what people think about when they think about the Shore," said Robert Hilton, executive director of the Jersey Shore Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In Atlantic City, which claims to have the world's longest boardwalk, the weathered planks that carry tourists from the beach to the casinos and skee ball games were relatively untouched - despite exaggerated news reports to the contrary focusing on a little-visited section that did wash away.

But farther north, it is a different picture. In Point Pleasant Beach, Mayor Vincent Barrella estimated that 75 percent of his town's almost mile-long boardwalk would need to be replaced.

With federal disaster assistance still tied up in Congress, towns are borrowing heavily to fund boardwalk construction. Towns say they expect that the federal government will reimburse about 75 percent of their overall rebuilding costs, with local taxpayers picking up the rest, but when it comes to the boardwalks, they aren't waiting.

In Point Pleasant, to get the boardwalk ready for Memorial Day, Jenkinson's, which runs many of the boardwalk attractions, has agreed to cover any costs to the town not covered by the federal government up to $1 million, Barrella said.

"It's a recognition on their part and ours we need to send a message to all of New Jersey we're going to be open for business," the mayor said. "It's better for us; it's better for them."

So far, local officials say they are confident that construction will be completed in time for summer - even Easter weekend in some places.

But how closely the rebuilt boardwalks will resemble the originals remains an open question.

Hilton, from the tourism board, predicted that while all of the boardwalks would be open, in some cases they might not be the entire boardwalk and might not include all of the businesses that were in place last summer.

"And if they need an extra month or two to lay the boards, I don't think that's going to impact tourism," he said. "The ocean, the music, the people getting together, the sand . . . all of that is still there."

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

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