Anyone who has ever strolled down the beach in Stone Harbor, enjoyed a fabulous seafood dinner in Avalon or spent an entertaining summer night on Morey’s Pier in Wildwood has contributed to the No. 1 economic driver in Cape May County: tourism.
For decades, people from South Jersey, Philadelphia and its suburbs and even as far as Montreal have flocked to the county’s resort towns in July and August to take in all that the area has to offer. Officials estimate that 48 percent of the homes in the county are vacation homes, and the population increases by 10 times or more in the summer. The economic impact of those visitors is felt throughout the entire year.
“Our tourism industry is the very foundation of our county,” says Cape May County Freeholder Director Gerald M. Thornton. “We do a little over $6 billion a year in tourism and we’ve had very successful years the last four or five years. … We take that very seriously and the county spends the necessary funding to have our travel shows and do advertising on the East Coast and also in Canada.”
But as proud of their family-oriented entertainment—and as dependent on tourism—as the year-long residents of Cape May County are, they know their economy needs more than just summer beachgoers to thrive. In that sense, this is an exciting time for the county as it looks to extend tourism into the spring and fall, develop and attract new industries and create year-round, high-paying jobs to keep its young population from fleeing the area.
MORE THAN JUST A SUMMER GETAWAY
Richard C. Perniciaro is the executive vice president for planning, research and facilities at Atlantic Cape Community College, as well as the director of the school’s Center for Regional and Business Research. Through his research at the college and his own personal experiences of working in Cape May County for more than 30 years, he has seen significant changes in the tourism industry.
“There’s not much else Cape May County can do in August—they’re at 100 percent capacity, everything is full,” he says. “But what they can do is spread to what used to be the off-season and is now [considered] the shoulder seasons. On the tourism side, Cape May County has worked very hard and done very well at expanding the season. They now start in April and a lot of the tourism goes into Christmas.”
Vicki T. Clark, president of the Cape May County Chamber of Commerce, agrees that visitors aren’t just coming in the summer anymore. She believes more people take mini-trips throughout the year instead of a two-week vacation in August, and also that those who own vacation homes at the Shore are eager to come down for spring and fall weekends.
“Tourism is a $6 billion industry for Cape May County, and of course it’s a beach- and boardwalk-driven tourism industry, so it does heavily depend on the summer months,” Clark says. “However, we do have a very strong off-season with special events, conventions and conferences going on up until Columbus Day weekend in October. Then from Columbus Day through the Christmas holiday season, there’s still a lot that goes on, popular events like the Jazz Fest. We just keep on going strong throughout the fall season.”
A major draw in the off months is the emergence of popular wineries, breweries and distilleries in the county. These include Cape May Winery, Hawk Haven Winery and Willow Creek Winery, as well as Cape May Brewing Company, Slack Tide Brewing Company and Seven Mile Brewing Company.
“They’ve always had a couple wineries, but now those wineries are almost turning into entertainment centers,” Perniciaro says. “They do weddings there, they have bands, they do tastings. They are expanding their role in the economy.”
Cape May Brewing Company was founded in 2011 at the Cape May Airport and today has more than 100 varieties that are distributed throughout the region. The brewery is open daily for tours and tastings.
“Talk about a success story; those people at Cape May Brewing have done an amazing job and their product is excellent,” Thornton says. “That’s a prime example of a couple people having an idea, making an investment and putting in the hard work, and look at the success they’re having today. It’s the same thing with the wineries. That’s the future of Cape May County, to be honest.”
Another attraction for tourists, in the summer certainly but also in the spring and fall, is the Cape May County Park & Zoo, which is open year-round. The site now includes the Tree to Tree Adventure Park, featuring zip lines, Tarzan swings and other obstacles for children and adults.
“It’s an award-winning, nationally recognized zoo that is one of the real gems of Cape May County,” Clark says. “And it’s great to have this new attraction, the Tree to Tree Adventure. The zoo is a great asset for the county. It’s family fun for all generations.”
OTHER ECONOMIC DRIVERS
As important as tourism is at several points of the year, one of the biggest hurdles for Cape May County has been finding other industries to supplement it.
“We do have a very significant tourism economy and that is a great blessing, but it is a partial year proposition,” says Carole Mattessich, director of economic development for the county. “The challenge for an economic development strategy is to have something that is year-round and high-paying that will help our residents in a sustained way. So we look at all different segments.”
Those segments include traditional industries like fishing and agriculture. Oyster farms are flourishing, and Cape May Salts, as they’re known, are grown in Delaware Bay and boast a one-of-a-kind flavor. “Cape May Salts are gaining a national reputation very, very rapidly,” Mattessich says.
A long-time economic driver in the county has been the presence of the United States Coast Guard and the Training Center in Cape May, which is the fifth-largest base in the Coast Guard and the sole accession point and recruiting center for the enlisted workforce. In 2015, Cape May County became only the second county in the United States to be designated a Coast Guard Community by Congress, a title it obtained through a competitive and rigorous process.
“The training center shapes the lives of men and women who are going to serve the country, and I think it’s a big part of the community,” says Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey, who pushed for the designation. “Not only is it a gigantic economic driver, but it’s also a really important social aspect to our county. It was a privilege to play a part in that mission.”
As far as new industries, sitting at the top of the list is the exciting field of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly known as drones. Congress has designated New Jersey as one of six official test sites in the country for drone flights, and Cape May County has risen to the forefront within the state for drone companies and developers. Factors that have historically hurt the county in other industries—such as the fact that the county is almost entirely surrounded by water and lacks heavy infrastructure like highways and better rail transport—have been an advantage when it comes to drones.
“One thing that makes the county an excellent spot for drones, of course, is Cape May County Airport,” Thornton says. “The traffic going in and out of that airport is low, and also it’s a very good test site because you can take the drones out over the bay and the ocean, so they don’t fly over any occupied areas. Also, the Cape May County Airport is an industrial zone, so if those companies want to come in here, whether they want to do testing or manufacturing of drones, we have the space available.”
“We’re also very close to the FAA Tech Center, which is located about 30 minutes away, and that is the epicenter of drone development in the whole country,” Mattessich adds. “We’ve been pursuing that type of business very actively and hope ultimately to have a number of jobs come about because of that.”
Drones can be used for such tasks as bridge inspections, emergency response, search and rescue missions and much more. The UAS industry is projected to generate more than 100,000 jobs and over $82 billion nationwide by 2025.
Cape May County and the Delaware River Bay Authority sponsor monthly UAS innovation forums, bringing together innovators and developers from the region to discuss the future in the field. The 2nd annual UAS Symposium will also be held in October.
“We’ve been involved with the drone program at the airport from the start, along with NJIT,” ACCC’s Perniciaro says. “I think the county and the college are looking for what their roles are going to be with drones and sort of feeling their way around. … I don’t think anybody right now can tell you exactly what it’s going to look like in five years, but it’s a proactive effort. People are involved and it’s working well right now. It’s good to be in at the ground level.”
While officials are optimistic that the drone industry will lead to more jobs in the county, there are also several educational institutions looking to develop the workforce. One of those is Cape May County Tech, a full-time high school that provides traditional educational opportunities as well as career training.
“That’s what we’re all about, whereas regular high schools might focus less on the career-training aspect and more on the academic side. We have both,” says Laura Elston, Cape May Tech’s supervisor of adult education. “Even our high school students are here to get career training and most of it is based on jobs that you can find in this county.”
Cape May Tech also has an adult education department that includes post-secondary programs such as practical nursing, welding, dental assisting and cosmetology. The programs all run less than a year and most end with the student earning some type of industry credential.
Elston sees a wide range of students taking advantage of the adult education program in order to pursue opportunities in the county.
“They have to have a high school diploma for the post-secondary programs and they need to be 18, but we have people of all ages,” she says. “We’ve had people in their 60s. A lot of times what we’re dealing with now are people who have been displaced. Maybe they worked in the casinos or some of the other jobs that have closed and they’re faced with retraining. That can happen at any age.”
With the young population declining in Cape May County, Atlantic Cape Community College is also focused on creating more reasons for people to stay.
“The young people are leaving, the school districts are shrinking,” Perniciaro says. “More and more people are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, not only do we need to keep the tourism going, but we need to diversify a little bit to help keep some young families here and not become a retirement county.’
“Ultimately the college is looking at other kinds of programs that might help the economy, like marine trades such as engine repair and navigation, that kind of thing. We’re trying to get some programs going and fit whatever would help the county.”
Whether it’s educational programs, development of the drone industry or expansion of tourism, all of these initiatives are meant to keep the county going strong for generations to come.
“I went to school in Philadelphia, but I spent all my summers in Cape May County, so I really grew up in both areas,” Thornton says. “I have been so fortunate to have the experience of living in Cape May County and now being a representative of the county government for many, many years. I absolutely love this county. It’s a wonderful place to live and the environment is outstanding. I’m very proud of it.”
WHAT BUSINESSES ARE SAYING
CAPE MAY BREWING COMPANY
Ryan Krill, President and Co-founder
“Cape May County is very dynamic. It is surrounded by natural beauty, which drives the lifestyle of those who are fortunate enough to live here. There is a deep history … which is not tainted by big box stores or the industrial complex. It’s an exciting time to be in Cape May County; it is increasingly drawing young, talented individuals to the region.”
DESATNICK REAL ESTATE, LLC
Todd deSatnick, Broker of Record/Owner
“I enjoy working in the community where I grew up and call home. The grass is not greener outside of our area. Our town is frequented by many people who could choose to go anywhere; however, they keep coming back to Cape May County. My crew and I at deSatnick work daily with many buyers who are planning to retire in the community. In addition, our repeat tenant base grows every year. The area is becoming more active each off-season.”
RE/MAX BEACH HOME REALTY
Bill Buchanan, Owner, and Vice President, Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization
“From Ocean City to Cape May, there is something for every demographic, that’s the neat part about it. Cape May City is the oldest resort town in the United States; Presidents Grant and Harrison visited Congress Hall back in the 1800s, and it’s still an attraction today. Our restaurant scene in Sea Isle is excellent, and we’ve developed more than anybody since the recession. Working together with the city has been our secret.”
Cape May County Freeholder
“The peninsula has unique characteristics on the Delaware Bay that produce an outstanding and desirable oyster. So we’re working with that industry to not only expand it times five, but also we’ve talked about ways to promote their product and have the public more educated and involved in that whole industry.”
Curtis Bashaw, Owner
“When Congress Hall opened in the summer of 1816, the United States flag had only 15 stars and the country was only 40 years old. For Congress Hall—which has endured fires, storms, economic disasters, wars, massive changes to building and fire codes and evolving consumer preferences—to have survived 200 years and be the thriving resort it is today is a truly remarkable accomplishment.”
CAPE MAY COUNTY CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
Vicki T. Clark, President
“From a chamber perspective and also workforce development, one of our focuses has been a very extensive customer training program we had from April to June. It was called the Jersey Cape Experience: Serving Dreams in 2016. We were able to provide customer service training for frontline staff for any business in the county; they didn’t have to be a member of the chamber. We have a $6 billion tourism industry here … and customer service is a critical component of any business. The greatest promotion you can ever have is someone else telling your story.”
PROCISION BUSINESS BROKERS AND PROCISION COMMERCIAL REALTY
Robert Beach, President
“The county has emerged from the challenges of the last decade and things are on an upward trajectory. Just ride around and you’ll see the progress in each of the towns. Owners are reinvesting in their businesses and properties, and capital improvements are everywhere.”
CAPE MAY COUNTY TECHNICAL SCHOOL
Laura Elston, Supervisor of Adult Education
“There are a lot of plusses to living here. We live where people want to vacation.”
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 6, Issue 7 (July, 2016).
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