My family and I moved to Cape May County in 1974 and have seen many changes over those years… Not that we were that much aware of the changes as they were taking place. But, when one stops and looks back over three decades, the changes are a lot more pronounced than they appear moment to moment.
When we moved here it was not uncommon to see a house advertised for sale without heat. After all, what do you need heat for in a bungalow built for summer use only?
Labor Day evening the county just cleared out, and the tumbleweeds blew in. The old timers used to say, after Labor Day you could just roll up the sidewalks.
The county was so parochial back then that people hardly knew what was going on outside of their own communities. We were so self-contained on Five Mile Beach that my wife would go for weeks and never leave the Island.
As a matter of fact, years back this newspaper had three different editions: The Cape May Dispatch, the Lower Township Lantern and the Cape May County Herald. This is not the county it was then; we were a backwater, all but forgotten by the rest of the state until summertime came around. Back in the 1950s, when the Garden State Parkway was planned, it was to go from one end of the state to the other, from North Jersey to Atlantic City, that is. It took a big stink to get it down to Cape May.
And until recently, we were the only county in New Jersey without a community college. We felt so overlooked down here that there was even half serious talk about withdrawing from New Jersey.
Well things have changed a lot. We went from having some of the cheapest real estate to among the most expensive. And forget the “off-season.” I loosely quoted our editor, Joe Zelnik, recently: “I used to be able to enter onto the Garden State Parkway from Stone Harbor in February and look up and down and see not a car, but now the Parkway is packed in February.”
With all the changes comes the necessity to rethink. The older generation which has overseen so much advancement in our county, is gradually stepping down. Emerging leaders have the opportunity to build on what has been accomplished. This will require an understanding of changed desires and habits; our residents and visitors are vastly different from those of years back.
Even the term, Cape May County, used to be a political designation for 16 distinct communities that had very little interaction. The Herald commissioned a market research study last year as so did the Borough of Avalon. Both pointed out the same thing: People are traveling around the county, eating here, shopping there, and entertaining themselves somewhere else.
Furthermore, our county is attracting an upscale clientele, with condos even in Wildwood going for half million and more. Our more sophisticated visitors have more sophisticated tastes, and are driving around the county to get what they want.
Accordingly, we cannot serve today’s visitors and summer residents the way we did thirty years ago; we must always be improving. If present trends continue, we may find fewer people here, but with more money to spend.
It is, however, difficult to offer an upscale product to just a few people; upscale products require a broader, countywide audience. So our towns have less and less the ability to work independently of one another.
Take the Cape May Music Festival as an example. It is absolutely top shelf and a credit to Cape May and the county. For this reason, it has the potential to attract a far larger audience. If the whole county got behind it, I have no doubt it would come to attract a vastly larger audience.
One of the conclusions of Avalon’s recent study is, “Avalon needs signature events to compete more successfully in the shore scene.” If Avalon and all the other towns promoted the Music Festival and Cape May and the other towns promoted Avalon’s, and everyone else’s events, we will build stronger attractions, and with it build the image of the Jersey Shore as a fun place to live and visit.
One comment I hear is people prefer the Jersey Shore to Delaware and Virginia beaches because of the number of attractions available here. By responding to the changes and pulling together, Cape May County will rise to a new level. In reality, we are offered no alternative-we change with the times are get left at the dock.
Art Hall, publisher
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