By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Joe Fornara, a 55-year-old electrical contractor who lives in Warrington, Pa., has no trouble traveling to his summer vacation home in Ocean City.
While many other summer visitors heading to the shore are stuck in heavy traffic on the Garden State Parkway or other roads, Fornara takes off from the airport in Doylestown, Pa., for an easy flight to Ocean City in his Cirrus SR20 single-engine plane.
“I know everyone pretty well here. If I’m 10 miles out, they’ll say, ‘Joe, this is what the weather is like’ and they’ll tell me about the winds,” Fornara said of his cockpit radio transmissions with the airport staff.
Recognizing the importance of the airport for pilots like Fornara, as well as its potential as a magnet for other visitors, Ocean City officials are discussing tentative plans to give the facility a facelift that would make it more attractive.
City Council awarded a $30,000 contract during its meeting Thursday to Toms River, N.J., architect Henry Hengchua to develop conceptual plans for a “multiuse transportation building” to replace the airport’s tiny operations building that also doubles as a diner.
“Part of our objective is to make this airport as attractive as possible,” City Business Administrator George Savastano said in an interview.
Exactly how much the airport’s proposed makeover would cost and when it would be done are unknown at this time, Savastano indicated.
He noted that the project would likely cost in the millions, but the city plans to seek grants to help pay for construction. The project would not be done in 2021, but 2022 might be a possibility, he said.
As part of its five-year capital plan, the city had previously estimated the cost of the airport project at $2.3 million. The capital plan is considered a sweeping blueprint for city projects that may be built in the future. Funding for those projects would have to be approved by City Council.
The multiuse transportation building that is being proposed would include the airport operations center, a diner and a pro shop for the municipal golf course next door.
“It would be a modern facility that supports the airport operations,” Savastano said.
Built in 1935, the bayside airport handles mostly small, single-engine planes. But its nearly 3,000-foot runway is long enough to accommodate private jets. Pop superstar Taylor Swift is known to fly into the airport on her jet from time to time during visits to the Jersey Shore.
The airport’s claim to fame is that it is the only one in New Jersey located on a barrier island. Its location along Bay Avenue puts it only blocks from Ocean City’s beaches. It is not uncommon in summer to see people get out of their planes holding beach chairs and umbrellas.
Fornara said he enjoys flying into the airport. He doesn’t think it needs a dramatic overhaul, but believes it could use some updating, particularly the quaint diner that shares the same building as the airport operations center.
“It will bring in pilots from all over. If it’s better, you would have the whole island come in to eat there,” he said of a modern diner.
Overall, Fornara considers the airport to be efficient, affordable and big enough for the needs of most pilots, including the length of its runway.
“I really can’t say anything negative about it,” he in an interview Saturday just before a flight.
During the summer, the airport comes alive with planes carrying vacationers and other visitors to town.
It also serves as the headquarters for the city’s annual air festival and airshow in September, two events that usually draw thousands of spectators. This year, however, the air festival and airshow were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Next door to the airport is the city’s municipal golf course overlooking Bay Avenue at 26th Street. On Saturday, Meredith Moors, of Somers Point, her father, Rick Moors, of Landenberg, Pa., Tom Mandell, of Somers Point, and his son, Nick Mandell, of Norwood, Pa., were playing a round of golf.
“It was my first time here. It was awesome,” Tom Mandell said of the course.
Nick Mandell, an instrument-rated pilot, has never flown into Ocean City, but he believes the city should consider installing an instrument landing system to make the airport more viable. An ILS guides pilots to the runway for precision landings, even in bad weather.
“With ILS you could bring more small jets here. I think it would make it more attractive to pilots,” Mandell said.