October 26, 2005

10 Questions on a Changing Wildwood

10 Questions with Reggie Byrne and Mary Erceg

The construction of high-rise hotels promises to change the skyline and the character of Wildwood. While some residents and property owners have organized and voiced opposition to the plans, two local hoteliers have been attending zoning board meetings to explain why they think the dramatic changes to the landscape are for the better.
The motel owners, Mary Erceg and Reginald “Reggie” Byrne, own what they have called “prime real estate” on Ocean Avenue in the vicinity of Spencer Avenue, and they are negotiating with potential buyers, who develop their mid-century motels into 21st Century high rises. They sat down with Maureen Cawley from The Wildwood Leader recently to discuss issues surrounding the high-rise hotels.

(Editor’s note: Because of the scope of the conversation and a couple follow-up questions to their answers, we actually have published 12 questions instead of 10.)

Tell us about your history with the city of Wildwood.

Erceg: My parents came here in 1933 and opened up Boardwalk stores. I was born in 1943 in Margaret Mace hospital and I have spent every single summer of my life here. I became a resident in 1936. I’m vice chair of GWTIDA. I was appointed in 1995, (and) I was part of the group that started the (convention center) project movement from conceptual stage to completion. I was (also) president (of the chamber of commerce). (Erceg also owns and operates three motel properties under the name Heart of Wildwood.)

Byrne: My family came here initially around 1909 on their way to Australia. They (built) a rooming house down this street called the called the Melbourne. They did pretty well for them themselves. I am a graduate of University of Denver in Colorado with a degree in business administration and a major of hotel and restaurant management. (Byrne runs his family’s motels The Riviera and the Sea and Sun on Ocean Ave. near Erceg’s property.) I am a fifth generation hotelier, and I’ve lived in this area (most of) my life. I bought my own residence here (on Ocean Ave.)…about 15 years ago.

What do high-rises have to offer that Wildwood needs?

Erceg: We have always invested consistently in the upgrading of the property, but how many years can you keep investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a consistent fashion and not go to the poor house? The pockets are somewhat shallow. Developers bring deep pockets with bold plans. We cannot do that. (High rises) will bring …21st century amenities. People want more amenities. Do we want to attract a better clientele? What better way to do it?
I’ve always said when I came here when I leave it. I want to make it better than the day I arrived. I know in my heart I did that, and I will continue to do that. And that’s what I see with these people (developers). They are not bad. They have bold plans. We’ve got a wonderful administration that is on that same track. Why not dream big?
It’s not (going to) come from the local. We had one developer here all these years, and that was the Morey Organization. They were able to develop Seapoint and they were able to develop wonderful piers. We need a lot of people, bringing in a hell of a lot of new money.

Byrne: When people go on vacation. They are not going on vacation for a couple of double beds and a refrigerator. So what these high-rises offer are the amenities that (modern) tourist travelers are interested in. They want (spas, fitness facilities, indoor swimming pools, a restaurant, and onsite meeting rooms). They want 21st century technology that they can tap into as a business person, and this is what high-rise structures and these developers can provide. They have the financial backing.
We are speaking about projects that that are in the neighborhood of $100 million to $150 million and beyond. That is the next level where we have to go to provide those types of services. And let’s be honest with ourselves, when we go on vacation, we stay in resorts and facilities that can accommodate us with those needs.

Have you been to Ocean City, Maryland, and Virginia Beach? Would you want to live there?

Byrne: Yes, absolutely, sure. I have family that lives there. (My sister) lives just off the island, but there are plenty of people that live on the island, and that is fine.

Erceg: What is this area? It’s a tourism area. If I were knowingly buying in a tourism area, I would say, I’m buying in a commercial area, therefore there’s going to be more traffic (and) more people. It goes with the territory. So to me it’s a choice (property owners) make. And if they made it last year, (like) the people down the block (near the 25-story Waypoint project), how can (they) say, “I won’t see the fireworks”? Give me a break. Had you wanted to see the fireworks, you should have thought of that and bought on the beach, if you could afford it. They knew the possibility of this. Buyer beware. They were well aware of the ordinances that were passed by the city of Wildwood. That’s public information. Surely, you don’t live in a bubble. If you are buying in an area and you are totally new to it, what do you do? Smart money is on investigating it. If you want no development, you’ve got to go to a residential area, and it may indeed be one off shore.

Byrne: (The) bottom line is if you are buying into a tourist destination, then you have to understand going in that you are going to have to deal with tourists and the eventuality of development, and (here) you are talking about major development. I am a resident and I bought a residence here 15 years ago, and honestly I was a little concerned about contending with some of the business aspects in a tourist area. That is the reality when you buy in this type of environment. If I were to put myself in the shoes of one of the condo owners by the Binns, I wouldn’t want to live next to the Binns as it is right now.

How about the people who have been here, like you (Erceg), for 50 years, that want to continue to live in the community, and they are afraid the community is disappearing?

Erceg: How many people have lived here for a significant amount of time like 50 years? I can sympathize with them that they don’t want their home (Wildwood) to change in any way. However …Wildwood …(had) been in a downward trend since the ’80s. Economically as a business person, I was petrified. I had a big nut, and I didn’t want to lose my investment. I worked very hard to maintain my business and despite all odds I did, and so did (the Byrnes) because we never stopped investing in our community, i.e. our property. Now the time comes (for) the next big step for the island. We are behind the times as far as I’m concerned. How do we say, there’s a handful of very, very, old property owners, (so we can’t build high-rises)? Basically in the city of Wildwood, it’s not residential. There is a middle ground somewhere. But I don’t see that the opportunity of a lifetime should be bypassed.

Byrne: I see the community being more wonderful after the development of these structures, a better clientele, more tourists to support the other situations on the island, and a much more attractive atmosphere for people to look at. The useful lives of some of these buildings are coming to an end. Structures of this kind, how long do they last, 70 years? I’m looking forward to driving down the street and seeing a beautiful high-rise facility with nice people staying in it, as opposed to the some of the rinky-dink situations that we have now that are sub-par and cater to a sub-par clientele.

How will Wildwood be able to fund the infrastructure improvements that will be necessary to support the high-rise buildings?

Erceg: Increase your tax base, (and) it neutralizes the cost. One of the points that has not been made yet is each project, because of (its) size, brings a 10- to 20-cent decrease in the tax rate. That’s incredible. As a taxpayer, I want every single one of those projects started yesterday. The more people that join the club, the less you pay in dues.

Byrne: The addition of these highly valued ratables should go a long way toward helping with the infrastructure and helping with the tax base for the residents. At this point, I would imagine some of the residents would be quite concerned about the tax situation.

Do you think the climate of the Jersey Shore will affect Wildwood’s ability to draw year-round business?

Erceg: What about Ocean City, Maryland? What about Ocean City, New Jersey, Cape May, New Jersey?

Byrne: (We have) basically, the same climate (as Ocean City, Maryland). We have a convention center that needs state-of-the-art accommodations and vice versa. Once you have the accommodations, you’ll have a lot more business for the convention center. It goes hand in hand. Also, (we are taking about) a facility (with indoor) amenities. It doesn’t matter if there is a foot of snow outside because in all reality they can stay within the walls of the hotel and enjoy themselves, and still have a vacation. Plus there area whole other set of activities that that could be tapped into ecologically: tremendous hunting (and) fishing, bird watching, (and) other ecological things that happen along our coast that could be tapped into through the various seasons.

Wildwood’s master plan allows high-rise development from its northern border to its southern border and from Ocean Avenue to the middle of Atlantic and Pacific Avenues, including many new residential areas. Some have said it is too big and too close to residential neighborhoods. Is this a valid criticism?

Byrne: Well, we need a large HM zone to support the convention center, and to support our Boardwalk and to support the other restaurants and facilities that are on the island. To say that it is too big, I don’t see it. There are residences there and to this particular point, many of them are very sub-par residences, as well. Talk to the people that designed the master plan because obviously a lot of time effort energy and money was put into studying to see where that zone should go. And now we have developers that have seen our master plan who are attracted to our location.

Many of the developers of the proposed high-rises have asked for multiple variances, and they have been accused of trying to squeeze too big of a building onto a small lot. Do you agree? Should they be granted multiple variances?

Erceg: The (Rio Motel and The Oceanic) received all of the requested variances, which I believe was a rather large number, so I think somewhat of a precedent was set there.

Byrne: We can find reasons every day not to do something. The challenge is to find ways to make things happen. When we start to speak of 250 feet versus 280 because somebody wants to make a building more aesthetically pleasing or with higher ceilings or more magnificent, I think we have to look at these projects in totality.

How about when they are taking over portions of the public sidewalk or asking for four-inch setbacks from the neighbor’s property line (as with the Binns and Bonito project)?

Erceg: Maybe the idea from the developer was to go for broke. I’m going to ask for everything, but my realistic goal is halfway there or three-quarters of the way there. And that’s not a bad thing. They are working in their best self-interest and isn’t this wonderful? They are coming here with a lot of money and a lot of investment and a lot of excitement for everyone’s benefit including their own, and that is the best way to act. It’s great for the city. The (zoning) board is ... watching out for the residents. They have to weigh a variety of things but I would hate to see the (zoning) board coming up with gut-like reactions and say, “No, I’m opposed to all of this.” Please qualify your yes or no, because I think the developer is worthy of that.

Do you see any negative effects coming from the proposed high-rises?

Erceg: No.
Byrne: I don’t see the negative effects.

What is your vision for Wildwood without high-rises?

Byrne: The same thing we have now, an aged hotel stock, sub-par accommodations, tourists who leave here often times dissatisfied and un-enchanted.
Erceg: People come in here (Heart of Wildwood) who have checked in elsewhere and immediately checked out (because of outdated, poorly run accommodations). They are going to take that home. It galls me. We deal with it every day. I want my people to be happy every single second they are here. That is an automatic resell and that is what we work for. Otherwise, get the hell out. Just get out of the business.

What is your vision for Wildwood with high-rises?

Byrne: A world-class destination resort. We have all the components to make this happen. There is a tremendous amount of things to do on this island. We have a jewel sitting on the Atlantic Ocean. We have fishing. We have golf. We have parasailing, and dolphin and whale watching. We have all these things to do. We need beautiful first-class accommodations that people can stay in and feel comfortable. Perception is everything. When people see these new structures, it’s only going to grow the pie here, as far as …the number of tourists that come, the number of nice tourists that come, the good clientele. So in time it’s just a win, win, win for Wildwood to have this type of investment.

Erceg: The improvements are becoming very visible now, and I think with the buildings with this level of investment, it will provide the punch that this island has desperately needed for the past for the past 20 years. We are just making a natural progression. Why would you want to turn the clock back? Why? And keep it a sleepy little village? We will not be able to survive.

Maureen L. Cawley can be e-mailed at maureen.cawley@catamaranmedia.com or you can comment on this story by calling 624-8900, ext. 250.

High-rise hotel planned for Wildwood Boardwalk

High-rise hotel planned for Wildwood Boardwalk
Staff Writer
WILDWOOD – A new high-rise hotel is in the works for the north side of Wildwood on the Boardwalk. The building, tentatively named The Starlite Resort, is proposed for a public parking lot between Juniper and Poplar avenues.
Realtor Michael McDonald and Gateway Real Estate are in the process of the buying the proposed building site from BMF Investment, a limited liability corporation, owned and managed by Bill Morey and family. The lot was acquired as a part of a settlement with the Morey Organization.
Original plans for the site included a 29-story art deco-style building, but plans are being scaled back to accommodate the city’s zoning law.
The zoning board failed to grant the required variances to the 26-story Bennett Avenue project earlier this month, and Morey said the message was loud and clear.
“The building is with the architects and getting smaller as we speak,” he said.
The lead architect on the project is Dan Shousky, of Oliveri, Shousky and Kiss.
“The height is pretty much capped at 250 feet,” Shousky said.
The design will mix Doo Wop at the base with art deco in the tower, and because of the extreme climate at the Jersey Shore, the building will be largely made of masonry.
“It has to be built to withstand weather conditions,” he said.
“We are right now in the process of purchasing the project from the Moreys,” McDonald said.
He said they will have a contract contingent upon gaining approval from the zoning board. He expects to submit the project for approval sometime in November.
“Right now we are very close to submitting it,” he said.
McDonald said he has spoken with three major national builders who are interested in purchasing the project.
“All of them have built Marriotts and other major hotels,” he said. “They love the location.”
Once approvals are obtained for a project, the project will be presented to the builders, McDonald said.
“Then we will see who has an appetite for it at the price we are asking,” he said.
The building will be a condotel, according to McDonald, providing both residential and motel-style accommodations. He said he was uncertain how many units will be delegated to the rental pool.
“We will do whatever is required,” he said.
A promotional feature story in Beach and Bay Homes last year promised “views from every angle will be spectacular.”
“It’s right on the Boardwalk and I think in the best position for not causing issues for neighbors,” McDonald said.
In an interview last week, Morey had said initial plans included a restaurant and a spa. Shousky said he envisioned ballrooms, “a really nice restaurant,” retail shops, an indoor/outdoor pool and a pool deck overlooking the beach.
Morey said that there may be some deviation from the original plan.
McDonald said the project details are sketchy right now.
As part of the transfer agreement with the Morey Organization the project will need to provide as many public parking spots as it does currently, McDonald said.
“There will be whatever public parking is required,” he said.
The lot, according to Morey, originally provided parking for the Starlite Ballroom on the Boardwalk.
He said the project will generate business for Boardwalk merchants in addition to the convention center. It will also contribute toward the funding of infrastructure improvements, he said.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” Morey said, “and we want to please as many people as possible.”
Morey said there still are a lot of details to work out. If this deal falls through, there are “numerous options” for the development and operation of the project.
“It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” he said
Morey acknowledges because of this high-rise building, and others like it, his grandchildren will grow up in a Wildwood that is drastically different than the one he grew up in. But he is comfortable with his decision.
“It’s a healthy thing to fear change before it happens,” he said, “but it’s happening now. So you need to embrace it and improve upon it.”

Maureen L. Cawley can be e-mailed at maureen.cawley@catamaranmedia.com or you can comment on this story by calling 624-8900, ext. 250.