By Donald Wittkowski
On Thursday evening, Ocean City’s public boat ramp overlooking the picturesque back bays at the end of Tennessee Avenue was eerily quiet.
Not one person was on the docks. Not one boat was in the water. Not one car was in the parking lot.
Although the natural beauty surrounding this prime piece of real estate is stunning, the nondescript boat ramp and its other lackluster manmade facilities are hardly impressive, city officials acknowledge.
Hoping to revitalize this part of the bayfront, City Council took the first step Thursday toward purchasing an adjacent bayfront building that could be instrumental in broader plans to redevelop the boat ramp area into a public showpiece.
By a 5-0 vote, Council introduced an ordinance for a $700,000 funding package to buy the two-story commercial building, known as 50 Tennessee Avenue. The proposed deal, however, is not without its critics.
Based on the $950,000 asking price for the property, the city would appear to be getting a steal for the building and the nearly one-acre waterfront parcel that surrounds it for $700,000.
“It’s a unique opportunity,” City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson told Council.
The city plans to convert part of the now-empty building into the new headquarters for its boat ramp operations. It is not yet known what the rest of the space inside the building would be used for, but at least one city councilman is excited over the prospects.
“I think this could be the type of thing that takes us in the right direction,” Councilman Michael DeVlieger said.
DeVlieger called the proposed deal a strategic acquisition that could greatly boost efforts to rejuvenate what is now, in his opinion, the “underwhelming” boat ramp area.
Before it buys the property, the city plans to have an engineer inspect the 53-year-old building’s structural integrity. Another inspection will check for the possibility of any environmental problems, McCrosson noted.
Based on the results of those inspections, the city will make a final decision whether to approve the funding ordinance and move forward with the deal.
Two residents who spoke during the City Council meeting questioned the proposed purchase. They expressed concern that the city is rushing to buy the property without knowing enough about it and without having a specific plan for redeveloping it.
“What is the plan? What’s the use?” Michael Hinchman, the former president of the local government watchdog group Fairness In Taxes, asked the Council members.
Hinchman, an unsuccessful mayoral candidate in the 2010 municipal election and a frequent critic of city spending, insisted that the building is not worth $700,000. He also said there are too many uncertainties concerning the building’s location, potential use and parking accommodations for the city to move ahead with the purchase at this time.
Ed Price, another critic of the deal, urged Council to delay approving the funding ordinance until more information is known about the property.
Price, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in the 2014 municipal election, argued that the city should first come up with a concept and designs for redeveloping the property before it seriously considers buying it.
“There’s an appearance here of some sort of impropriety,” Price said.
However, McCrosson stressed that the city is in the midst of conducting its “due diligence” on the property, including the engineering and environmental inspections.
The city would like to finalize the deal by late November, but that date could be pushed back, depending on how long it takes to complete the inspections, McCrosson said.
In the meantime, Council has scheduled a public hearing and final vote on the $700,000 funding ordinance for Oct. 12. McCrosson indicated, though, that a vote could be delayed until November if the inspections take longer than expected.
In other business Thursday, Council agreed to sell a piece of land to Cape May County that will be preserved as open space. It is the former site of a now-demolished BP gas station that the city acquired last year.
The city paid $475,000 for the land and will now sell it to the county for the same price. Previously, the city had planned to combine the old BP site with land next door that once housed an old Getty gas station.
Although the former gas stations have been torn down, plans have not yet materialized to transform both sites into landscaped parks stretching from the corner of Ninth Street and Bay Avenue to the foot of the Route 52 Causeway bridge. The idea is to make the Ninth Street corridor more visually inviting to visitors as they enter town on the city’s main gateway.
City spokesman Doug Bergen said negotiations continue for the city to buy the former Getty site.
In another vote, Council approved an ordinance that would allow private property owners to piggyback on the city’s dredging projects in the back bays to dredge their own boat slips.
Under the program, property owners would be able to use the dredging companies hired by the city, saving them the trouble and expense of finding their own contractors for their slips.
They would have to pay a $200 municipal permit fee for each private boat slip that is dredged. Property owners would also be charged an “inspection escrow” fee of $3 for each cubic yard of dredge spoils removed from their slips.
The permit and escrow fees will allow the city to inspect the work to make sure all of the private dredging is performed properly, McCrosson explained.
By taking advantage of the city’s dredging program for the sediment-choked back bays, boat slip owners would be able to save money on their own projects. The program is voluntarily, so slip owners would not be obligated to participate.
Also Thursday, Council approved a resolution honoring the late Richard P. Galante, a Navy veteran who served during the Korean War and was instrumental in establishing the city’s VFW post.
Galante, 86, who died on Sept. 2, was an outstanding athlete during his high school days, earning nine varsity letters in baseball, basketball and football. He was named “Mr. Ocean City High School.” He went on to own a local bricklaying company for more than 30 years.
Councilman Keith Hartzell, who praised Galante for his contributions to the community, called him “one of the most sincere and nicest people you ever want to meet.”
“Dick Galante will now be a permanent part of our town and history,” Hartzell of the resolution honoring Galante.
During an emotional ceremony, Hartzell and other Council members presented a copy of the resolution to Galante’s wife, Edie, 78, his son, Tony Galante, 60, and his daughter, Lori Smith, 58.
“My dad loved Ocean City. He loved his family, and he loved his country,” Tony Galante said.