By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City will explore the possibility of buying the former Crown Bank building, the historic six-story structure that overlooks the heart of downtown at the corner of Eighth Street and Asbury Avenue.
Built in 1925, the landmark building is “extremely worthy of consideration for acquisition, given its prime location within our downtown,” City Business Administrator George Savastano said.
Savastano publicly disclosed the city’s interest in acquiring the property at 801 Asbury Ave. in a report to City Council during a meeting Thursday night. At the same time, he revealed that the building’s owner is now in bankruptcy.
He said the city has been in contact with the bankruptcy trustee about possibly buying the building. The next step is for the city to evaluate the overall condition of the building, including its structural soundness and the mechanical, electrical, heating and air-conditioning systems.
The city’s administration headed by Mayor Jay Gillian has already held informal discussions with the Council members about acquiring the building. The administration plans to ask for Council’s approval in September for professional service contracts with companies that would evaluate the building’s condition.
Exactly what the city might do with the building if it buys it is not yet clear, Savastano noted.
“While there are no definite ideas yet for what the ultimate public purpose of the property would be, it clearly presents a number of options if it were to come into public ownership,” he told Council.
Only a block away from the former bank building is the city’s Police Department headquarters and municipal court at Eighth Street and Central Avenue. The police headquarters is a converted school building more than 100 years old. City officials have been debating plans about possibly developing a new police headquarters and municipal court to replace the antiquated building.
Gillian plans to hold a public meeting sometime after Labor Day to discuss ideas – both old and new – for developing a new police headquarters.
In 2020, the mayor proposed building a combined headquarters for the police and fire departments at 550 Asbury Ave. The estimated cost is $42 million. Council balked at the proposal, calling the price too expensive.
The former Crown Bank building currently serves as an office and retail location. It has been on and off the market in recent years. At one point, it was being pitched for an array of potential development options, including the possibility of converting it into a hotel, an entertainment complex, a recreation site, retail stores and multi-family housing.
A former sales listing on the commercial real estate website LoopNet.com noted that building has 60 surface parking spaces in back. The listing has since been removed from LoopNet.
In an interview after the Council meeting, Savastano said he did not know how much it might cost to buy the building, but did stress the city’s seriousness in possibly purchasing it.
“We have a clear interest in acquiring that property. It’s something that should be given due consideration by the city,” he said.
In other business Thursday, Council approved new contracts for the city’s trash hauling and recycling collections.
Pineland Construction of Sea Isle City was awarded separate five-year contracts for recycling and trash collection after submitting the lowest bids.
The company will be paid a base amount of $975,000 per year for trash hauling and $975,000 annually for recycling pickups in Ocean City. The contracts will be adjusted for inflation, if needed, according to the terms.
Pineland Construction is owned by Sea Isle Councilman Frank Edwardi Jr. Edwardi appeared at Ocean City’s Council meeting to thank the city for awarding his company the contracts and to pledge his commitment to reliable service.
“We won’t skip a beat here,” Edwardi said, noting that his company also serves as the solid waste hauler for seven other municipalities.
Edwardi’s company will start in Ocean City on Jan. 1, 2023. Ocean City has had a strained relationship with its current trash and recycling hauler, Gold Medal Environmental.
Earlier this year, the city agreed to pay Gold Medal an extra $770,000 to settle a financial dispute with the company. The extra payment to Gold Medal caused a small tax increase in the city’s municipal budget.
Gold Medal has been under contract to provide trash and recycling pickups for Ocean City for the past four years at about $1.5 million annually. With less than a year remaining on a five-year contract, Gold Medal initially demanded that Ocean City pay an additional $1.4 million for the balance of 2022, the city said in a statement. Eventually, both sides agreed to the $770,000 payment.
During an interview in May, Gold Medal CEO Darren Gruendel said his company could no longer afford to continue to provide waste-hauling services at the price specified in its contract with Ocean City.
He said Gold Medal has experienced labor shortages, COVID-19 disruptions and a 300 percent increase in fuel costs since the pandemic began. In addition, Gold Medal sees its service hours in Ocean City soar by 400 percent to 500 percent during the busy summer tourism season, he said.
Gold Medal was one of the companies that submitted bids for the city’s new trash and recycling contracts, but Pineland Construction came in with the lowest bids.
Savastano explained that the new contracts with Pineland Construction represent a 30 percent increase over what the city is currently paying Gold Medal. Gillian’s administration has been warning for months that Ocean City’s new waste hauling and recycling contracts would be higher because of escalating operating costs in the trash industry.
In response to questioning from Councilman Terry Crowley Jr., Savastano said the new contracts with Pineland Construction will include performance bonds from the company that will avoid the types of service disruptions experienced with Gold Medal.
At one point, Gold Medal briefly ceased recycling pickups earlier in the year because it had been unable to reach an agreement with the city.
In another vote Thursday, Council approved the transfer of city-owned land to the Ocean City Community Development Corp. for the development of five duplexes that will offer a total of 10 units of affordable housing.
The duplexes will help the city to meet its obligation to provide its “fair share” of affordable housing as part of a 2018 court settlement.
The land where the duplexes will be built includes 240-244 Haven Ave., 224-226 Simpson Ave. and 3300 Bay Ave. The Bay Avenue site is where the old American Legion headquarters was once located but is now vacant land.
The duplexes will provide rental housing at prices affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. A host of criteria will be used in the selection of the residents who will live in the duplexes.
“These (units) will be fully affordable,” City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson told Council.
Council voted 6-0 to approve the transfer of the city-owned land to the Ocean City Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that will oversee the construction of the new duplexes.
“I feel really good about it. I think it’s much needed,” Councilwoman Karen Bergman said of plans for more affordable housing in town.
The Ocean City Community Development Corp. is an affiliate of the Ocean City Housing Authority, the agency that provides affordable housing for senior citizens and families.
Councilman Bob Barr, who serves as chairman of the Ocean City Housing Authority, thanked the mayor and other city officials for their support for the five new duplexes. Barr expressed his hope that the duplexes will draw young families that will become a vital part of the community.