By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Berger Realty owner Leon Grisbaum, an avid pilot who has been flying for nearly 75 years, is donating $3 million to help build a new terminal at Ocean City Municipal Airport that will bear his and his wife’s names.
The donation was announced Thursday night by Mayor Jay Gillian at the same time his administration unveiled a $146.2 million, five-year capital plan to finance an array of infrastructure improvements across the city, including a new public safety building.
One of the proposed major projects in the capital plan is an updated airport terminal that will also house a restaurant and a pro shop for the adjacent Ocean City Municipal Golf Course. The city plans to combine Grisbaum’s $3 million donation with $5 million of its own funding and government grants to help build the project in 2024.
The new facility will be named the “Leon and Elizabeth Grisbaum Airport Terminal” in recognition of the donation.
“I’ve been flying here since 1948, and I want to see it continue on,” Grisbaum said of the airport in a city news release.
Grisbaum is one of Ocean City’s most prominent realtors. Berger Realty was once a small, virtually one-man operation on the corner of 32nd Street and Asbury Avenue in the late 1940s. Under Grisbaum’s leadership, the business has expanded to include the main headquarters and four satellite offices, according to the company’s website.
A licensed commercial pilot, Grisbaum flies his own twin-engine plane and also uses it for his real estate business. He is a former president of the Ocean City Airport Association.
Among other amenities, the new terminal named in Grisbaum’s honor will include better facilities for pilots, an updated communications center and a new second-story restaurant with views of the runway and surrounding bay.
“Our airport is an invaluable asset to Ocean City, not only for travel and tourism, but for emergency management, Gillian said in the release. “I’m extremely grateful to Mr. Grisbaum for a gift that will help us build an exceptional facility and for his many years of support for the airport. The airport has also been an important part of my life. My dad was a pilot, and I flew in and out of Ocean City with him for many years.”
Ocean City has conceptual designs for the new terminal. The city has submitted grant proposals for the New Jersey Airport Improvement Program, Federal Aviation Administration and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to help finance the project.
The city will have designs for the new building completed in 2023. The designs will also determine a cost estimate and timetable for the project. The donation from Grisbaum will be placed in escrow and returned to him if the new terminal does not come to fruition, according to the release.
The airport opened in the 1930s and is the only airport located on a New Jersey barrier island. The terminal building dates back to the 1960s and has reached the end of its useful life, the city said.
The city has been discussing plans to build a new terminal in recent years. At one point, it had tentatively planned to build it in 2020 as part of an earlier five-year capital plan.
Meanwhile, the new $146.2 million capital plan unveiled Thursday night during a City Council meeting is considered a sweeping blueprint for city projects that may be built from 2023 to 2027.
“This is important. It’s a lot of money,” Gillian told the Council members.
Council is expected to vote on the capital plan at its Dec. 22 meeting. Later on, Council will have to approve funding for the individual projects and the construction contracts.
The entire capital plan can be viewed on the city’s website at ocnj.us/projects.
Highlights in the capital plan for 2023 include a series of road construction projects across town, drainage improvements to reduce flooding, dredging of the back bays, beach replenishment and improvements to the Boardwalk.
Another major project proposed for 2023 is a sweeping makeover for the city’s playground and recreation complex at 34th Street. A new playground area, upgraded restrooms, five new pickleball courts and refurbished basketball and tennis courts would be part of the estimated $4.7 million project.
“The whole area needs a facelift,” Gillian said of the playground and recreation complex on 34th Street between West and Asbury avenues.
The Richard S. Grimes Athletic Fields, another hub for Ocean City’s sports and recreation community, is in line for a proposed $4.2 million facelift in 2023.
The complex’s location in a low-lying area off Bay and Haven avenues between Fifth and Sixth streets often results in the grassy fields getting soggy or muddy.
City officials plan to regrade and raise the fields to make them less susceptible to rain or flooding. New amenities are also under consideration, including better bleachers and bathrooms.
Altogether, the proposed spending for citywide capital projects in 2023 would come to nearly $54.6 million. In 2024, the capital plan proposes $46.8 million in spending, then $15.1 million in 2025, $17.3 million in 2026 and $12.4 million in 2027.
Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, told Council that Ocean City would be able to afford the plan. He said the cost would amount to less than a penny increase in the local tax rate each year over the next 10 years.
“The ability to afford it is there,” Donato said.
The single-most expensive project would be a new public safety building that would house the police department and cost $25 million.
In 2020, Gillian proposed building a combined headquarters for the police and fire departments at 550 Asbury Ave. The estimated cost was $42 million. Council balked at the proposal, calling the price too expensive.
Donato told Council that plans for a combined police and fire department headquarters are now dead.
Instead, the latest plans call for demolishing the existing police headquarters at Eighth Street and Central Avenue and constructing a new public safety building on the same site, Donato said.
The city is proposing to spend $500,000 in 2023 to design the project and would build it in 2024 at an estimated cost of $25 million.
Noting the controversial history of the city’s plans for a new public safety building, Gillian said, “We keep going round and round and round.”
The existing public safety building, a former school, is more than 100 years old. Gillian said the building is simply too antiquated to be modernized.
“There’s nothing we can do with that building,” he said.
The biggest challenge for developing a new public safety building on the existing site would be finding temporary quarters for the police department during the construction phase, city officials said.
Recently, the city has considered buying the seven-story former Crown Bank building on the corner of Eighth Street and Asbury Avenue and possibly using it for a temporary police station.
However, Icona Resorts owner Eustace Mita has offered to buy the Crown Bank building out of bankruptcy for $6.5 million and transform the downtown landmark into a luxury boutique hotel.
A bankruptcy hearing is scheduled for Dec. 13 to approve the building’s sale to Mita. Gillian pointed out that the city will monitor the bankruptcy proceedings.
“Once it’s done and final, we’ll sit down with him and decide what we want to do,” Gillian said of upcoming talks with Mita.