N.J. tourism officials seek funding to counter Sandy images

The Jet Star Roller Coaster awash in the surf off Seaside Heights is an image that has burned itself into the national consciousness.
The Jet Star Roller Coaster awash in the surf off Seaside Heights is an image that has burned itself into the national consciousness. (APRIL SAUL / Staff)
Posted: January 24, 2013

CAPE MAY - A picture is worth a thousand words. It seems it also can imperil New Jersey's $36 billion tourism industry.

National media captured many devastating images of the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy, but one stood out in particular: the iconic Jet Star Roller Coaster awash in the surf off Seaside Heights.

It has seashore tourism officials worried that a dagger has already been plunged into the heart of their 2013 summer season. The public, they fear, is convinced that the Jersey Shore as they knew it has vanished.

"There is no confidence the Jersey Shore will be ready for visitors this summer," said Marilou Halvorsen, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, which represents 25,000 businesses employing more than 300,000 people.

Halvorsen and other tourism officials made their case before the state Assembly's Tourism and the Arts Committee last week, asking for $20 million for a marketing campaign to spread the word far and wide that the Shore south of Long Beach Island is unscathed and ready for a good time - not demolished, and not under water.

Vicki Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers that she and her colleagues had recently attended the American Bus Association travel show in Charlotte, N.C. About 80 percent of the people who stopped by their booth, she said, thought "the Jersey Shore was gone and [said] how much they were going to miss it."

Four coastal counties - Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth and Ocean - account for half, or $18 billion, of the state's annual tourism industry. The northernmost two counties - Ocean County (Long Beach Island) and Monmouth County (Asbury Park) - were the hardest hit when Sandy struck Oct. 29.

But people are not making the distinction between those counties and less-affected Cape May and Atlantic Counties, tourism officials said - the Jersey Shore, like the Gulf Coast after Katrina, needs to have its image retooled, and quickly.

"Travel planners are formulating their vacations now," said Diane Wieland, of the Cape May County Department of Tourism. "With the image of the roller coaster in mind, many of our traditional visitors are . . . looking elsewhere for their summer vacation."

Tourism represents 65 percent of jobs in Cape May County. "If a positive marketing campaign promoting Shore tourism is not launched immediately," Clark told legislators, "the winter unemployment rate [of 18 percent] for Cape May County will become more of a year-round reality."

Most of the $20 million for marketing could come from the $51 billion federal disaster-aid bill that the U.S. House of Representatives passed Jan. 15, tourism officials say, and the rest could come from the 8 percent occupancy tax on hotel rooms.

Proponents want the campaign funded and fast-tracked for launch by March 1.

"Tourism is the third largest industry in the state after pharmaceuticals and chemicals," said Assemblyman Matthew Milam, a Democrat from Cape May County and chair of the tourism committee. "If we don't invest in the marketing, it won't grow."

Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance and charged with rebranding that resort, hosted a luncheon in Philadelphia last week, seeking more balanced depictions of conditions at Shore.

"The reputational damage has been enormous," Cartmell said.

Recent surveys by the alliance showed that 32 percent believe that Atlantic City and its Boardwalk were destroyed by Sandy, when in fact they suffered minimal structural damage.

"We need to get the message out that we're fine," she said.

Avalon was spared Sandy's wrath, thanks to well-maintained dunes. The only thing stripped away was sand.

"The beach is in great shape. Look at it," Bridget Tracey, 26, a bartender and year-round Avalon resident, said Thursday as she played catch with her dog, Barley.

And while giving a tour the same day of the undamaged shoreline in her neighboring community, Stone Harbor Mayor Suzanne Walters said, "We're trying to be diplomatic and sensitive . . . but we need to let everyone know that we're open for tourism and the summer."

Lori Pepenella, who markets the Long Beach Island region for the Southern Ocean County Chamber of Commerce, said there were no hard feelings.

"Everyone's message is going to be different," she said Tuesday. "They need to get their message out, and we're working to get ours out."

That message: that 90 percent of rentals on LBI are up and running, and businesses are in really good shape, said Pepenella, who also favors the $20 million for marketing.

"The bottom line is for our visitors to be aware that we are open," she said. "We have as many activities planned this year as we have the last five years."

Shore Realtors said rental bookings are up for Avalon and Stone Harbor this month compared with last January as some vacationers worry that their usual summer retreats in Monmouth and Ocean Counties won't be ready.

"We're seeing some of that, to a degree," said Allan Dechert, co-owner of Ferguson-Dechert Real Estate in Avalon. "We've also had people who grew up in the Delaware Valley and now live out of state calling and asking if their usual property will be OK."

Wieland fears that ads for Ocean City, Md.'s Rodney the Lifeguard - currently seen on billboards along I-95 in Philadelphia - will pop up in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, northwestern New York, and Canada, all Jersey Shore feeder markets.

"He will be reminding people about the [hurricane-induced] stress on the Shore, and why they should go to Ocean City, Md., instead," she said. "We need to keep Rodney out."

Contact Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2855 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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