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Thornton Delivers Last ‘State of the County’ to Chamber

Cape May County Commissioner Director Gerald Thornton addresses the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce March 17

By Erin Ledwon

STRATHMERE – Cape May County Commissioner Director Gerald Thornton, who won’t seek reelection this year, delivered his last State of the County update to Cape May County Chamber members March 17, at the Deauville Inn, in Strathmere.  

Tourism 

Thornton recalled feeling “fortunate” when tourism in the county decreased by 21% in 2020, instead of the anticipated 30%.  

He explained that toward the beginning of the pandemic, the county sent a comprehensive plan to the governor’s office, with a proposal not to shut down the county. 

“We were on a conference call at 10 p.m., arguing with the governor’s office about the restrictions in this county because we said it wasn’t fair and the damage is really for business in this county,” he said. 

“The governor’s office was not happy with us, and we had the chief of staff saying basically they were in charge,” he added.  

Visitation was down 20% in 2020, from 10.2 million to 8.2 million, according to Thornton, noting that it was the second highest loss of visitors in the state. 

“We came back really strong in 2021,” Thornton said, citing a 23.6% increase in the county’s occupancy tax over 2019, which was a record year. 

He said that the opening of the Canadian border was “significant,” adding that advertising campaigns promoting Cape May County are already being run there.  

Many summer residents have become permanent residents, Thornton said, citing an increase in the number of home sales. 

The average price of a single-family home was up 14%, he added. 

The Cape May County Clerk’s Office reported 14,076 deeds and property transfers, which is 2,000 more property transfers than any other year since 2005, he said, adding that the clerk’s office generated $10 million in transfers. 

There were 15,222 new mortgages last year, according to Thornton.  

Projects 

Thornton mentioned several county projects, including County Commons, in Rio Grande, which houses a Veterans Clinic and “centralized services,” including Social Services and Veterans Services. There are also several businesses in the complex, including Tractor Supply and Rent-A-Center.  

The movie theater is going to open hopefully in spring, Thornton said. 

According to a previous report, the property was appraised at $10.4 million and the county was able to acquire it at $5.75 million at a bankruptcy auction 

“In about a 20 to 25-year period of time, with all the investment put in there… the county will get all its money back and then some,” Thornton said. 

He also mentioned that the tech hangars at the Cape May County Airport are completely sold out, adding, “Those businesses are generating more jobs, year-round jobs, which was very important. It was really a good investment for us and for you.” 

The county is upgrading the Police Academy, which is recognized around the state, according to Thornton. He noted that the Police Academy takes trainees from almost every county in the state, and because of that, is updated as much as possible. 

He listed several roads the county is working on, including Bayshore Road, Pacific Avenue, Ocean Drive, Dias Creek Road, Dennisville-Petersburg Road, and Tuckahoe Road. 

“We’re spending almost $10 million on county maintenance and paving,” he said. 

He addressed snow plowing complaints this winter by saying that the county has had trouble hiring CDL drivers to operate the snowplows, adding that the county has 237 miles of roads to maintain. 

Something needs to be done about parking at the zoo, according to Thornton, because “in the summertime, our park and zoo, particularly on a cloudy day, it’s just overwhelming.”  

County Budget 

Thornton cited a good budget year, with a zero tax increase, expressing shock at the total budget amount of $200 million. 

“Holy mackerel. Where did that come from,” he said.    

He noted the tax rate remains at $.2344 per $100 of assessed value, adding that “Cape May County continues to have the second lowest tax rate in the State of New Jersey.” 

“That’s not because of me,” he said, instead giving credit to the county’s staff, who he said cut their operating expenses by 10% in the last couple years  

Covid 

Thornton recognized several entities for their work during the pandemic, including the Cape May County Health Department, Office of Emergency Management, and the county chamber.  

He said the Health Department itself distributed almost 25,000 vaccinations, noting that the county “got 74% of our county fully vaccinated.” 

“We were always among the top four or five counties in the state as far as vaccinations,” he added.  

Final Words 

“This is very difficult for me,” Thornton said, as he concluded his update.  

He continued that he’s “loved every minute” of his 46 years with the county, even seeing his name in Spout Off. 

Thornton thanked the chamber and its staff for enhancing “the quality of life for all the citizens of Cape May County.” 

“I’m very proud to have worked all these years with all of you,” he added.   

His final words of thanks and appreciation were met with a standing ovation from the audience. 

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