WILDWOOD — The president of Wildwood’s Business Improvement District sees a smaller, more concentrated shopping area as the key to improving business along Pacific Avenue.
But John Donio, BID president, said change won’t come in one dramatic move, but rather in a series of small steps.
In a tour of the downtown this week, Donio cited a number of initiatives, including program to help business owners improve their facades and new marketing efforts, and said if business owners can improve a small area, business can grow from there.
The BID includes all the properties west of Ocean Avenue to the west side of Pacific Avenue, from 26th Street to Cresse Avenue. Along with sibling organization the Special Improvement District along the boardwalk, the BID is funded by property owners, with an annual budget of $350,000, spent on marketing, planning, business support and business recruitment.
Over the years city officials and business leaders tried a number of ways to revive Pacific Avenue, which was considered the entertainment mecca of South Jersey in the 1950s and ’60s. Currents residents, leaders and business owners look back fondly at that time. There was big time talent and shops on every block, Business Improvement District President John Donio recalled.
In the 1970s, when the entire country suffered economically, big box stores came about, mom and pop stores couldn’t keep up and started shuttering, he said.
“It was the perfect storm. Atlantic City casinos came on the scene at the exact same time and then the clubs (in Wildwood) started to suffer,” Donio, 43, of Hammonton, said.
In the late 1980s, city officials tried to emulate Cape May’s success on its Washington Street Mall, creating a pedestrian-only zone along a long stretch of Pacific.
“That was a complete disaster,” said Donio, who has been the BID president for more than three years. “I remember the clubs were still busy enough to keep going, but mom and pop stores closed one by one. It wasn’t too long after that, the clubs started to close.”
The plan caused traffic problems, and many believe it starved businesses of shoppers.
Years later, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, another plan emerged, Donio said.
“Then they (city officials) said, ‘Let’s repave everything to get street traffic back on Pacific Avenue.’”
But beautifying and reopening the road did little to bring more business at a time when the economy was still lagging and the city had its share of crime, according to several sources. Investors purchased properties and reinvested in the area, but it wasn’t the type of properties that would draw business from the boardwalk to the downtown.
Unfortunately, there were a lot of tear downs and empty lots were replaced with beige boxes – mostly condominiums and other housing units, Donio said.
A new concept has emerged.
Business leaders agreed 26 blocks is too long for a comfortable stroll downtown for tourists and other shoppers. They want to condense the tourist area – shrink the business district on Pacific Avenue to about eight blocks. They would start out with four blocks first from Wildwood to Oak avenues and expand out to Spicer and Glenwood avenues.
“We wanted to start in the middle of Pacific Avenue,” Donio said adding that the area would remain zoned the same, residential and commercial.
Retail, bars and restaurants and other attractions including the Farmers Market, movies and concerts, would fill the new downtown area. In the BID’s vision, the remaining blocks will be steadily filled with condominiums, commercial office space and other non-tourist related businesses, all vital to a thriving community, Donio said.
“Let’s start with the center blocks. Who is to say we can’t go out and recruit people who have mom and pop shops? Maybe someone who owns a boutique in Avalon or an antique shop would want to open a store in downtown Wildwood,” Donio said. “Business recruitment has not really been done much in Wildwood. It is starting to happen. Let’s get real estate agents to help. Hustling - asking people to buy buildings is what will get it done.”
While Ocean and Atlantic avenues have nearly a 100 percent occupancy rate, with 22 and 60 retail properties filled, there are 117 properties on Atlantic Avenue with only 78 occupied, according to information gathered by the BID.
There have been some recent success stories in the district.
The owner of the Doo Wop Diner on the boardwalk bought a storefront on Ocean Avenue called the Purple Jalapeño, which is doing very well. Cattle N Clover opened two years ago on the corner of Pacific and Spicer avenues. Formerly the Rainbow Room, it sat vacant for years.
During a tour of Pacific Avenue Tuesday, April 21, business owners said they see Wildwood’s downtown improving.
“I’ve been on the block for 11 years and it went downhill for a while. Everything went down around Hurricane Sandy. The past couple of years it has turned for the better,”
Jon Paxton, 47, of Wildwood and manager of Cattle N Clover said.
More than anyone, Steve Paglione knows Wildwood’s up and down swings. He has owned Romeo’s Famous Pizza on Pacific Avenue and six other storefronts. They are all filled.
“Wildwood is coming back,” he said outside of one of his storefronts while slapping some fresh, white paint on his building. “All it takes is owners repairing their businesses, putting on some paint and fixing the roofs. I’m telling you Wildwood is a safe place. The police are doing a great job and the city is coming back.”
For a sunny, cool weekday, the town was busy with cars and shoppers.
“The perception is Wildwood is falling apart. It isn’t to me. It seems like it is on its way up,” Donio commented while explaining the history of storefronts that have now closed and others that just opened.
He pointed to the Mixing Bowl, a storefront with bright, freshly painted façade.
“All it takes is a little creativity. Look how nice it looks,” Donio said.
But near the storefront stands a vacant business. Juan Pablo’s closed in 2013 along with Good Fish Grill. Other vacant properties Therapy Club and The Fairview closed several years ago. Donio said the properties could be repurposed as a sushi bar or a pool hall, something that would attract tourists and residents since the nightclub scene has come and gone.
Donio, who owns commercial office space in Hammonton and The Daytona Motel Inn and Suites on Atlantic Avenue in Wildwood, compared his hometown revitalization to Wildwood’s attempts over the years.
“Wildwood has a history of changing its mind a lot whereas Hammonton keeps on track,” Donio said. “I think Wildwood’s problem is trying to hit a grand slam every time instead of hitting a few singles and doubles.”
But Hammonton’s success didn’t happen overnight. In the late 1970s it didn’t have economic activity. Then the Main Street Hammonton Committee formed and business leaders made a conscious effort to bring back the downtown store by store. They did it through hard work and persistence, Donio said.
“I try to tell people at BID meetings it won’t happen overnight. People don’t realize it is little things that make a difference,” he said. “With downtown revitalization there are no marching bands and mega-phones.”
About 10 people on the BID board, which meets every Thursday, get things done, Donio said. One of the major projects was to provide adequate lighting on the streets.
Jodie DiEduardo, 52, of North Wildwood, the senior vice-president of Crest Savings Bank and BID board member, has been instrumental in bringing business to the downtown, Donio and city officials have said. The Farmers Market, which began last year and runs Saturdays from May through September is seen as a major success.
DiEduardo said she is hoping movie night, which begins July 7 and goes through Sept. 1, will attracts families to the downtown. The event is free and will be in the Farmer’s Market lot between Pacific and Schellenger avenues. Dolly the Trolley will also start up on Memorial Day and go through Labor Day. For $1 per person tourists and residents can ride from 26th Avenue to Cresse Avenue and back again.
“The perception is there isn’t business downtown but there is. It’s just a large area,” DiEduardo said.
Like Donio, DiEduardo said attractions are great at bringing people to Pacific Avenue, but it isn’t enough to sustain the area. The empty storefronts need to be filled.
“We have to concentrate on one area then keep moving down from there. Pacific Avenue is a large area and there are sections where you could go blocks and blocks and stores are full and then other areas where there is one or two,” DiEduardo said.
The BID wants to work with owners who are interested in renting or selling. A local realtor – Wiechert- would be a part of a project to fill the vacancies along Pacific Avenue, DiEduardo said.
“At one time Pacific Avenue was the hub. I don’t know if it could ever be back to what it was before, but it certainly could become some type of hub again,” she said.
Donio said Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano and the commissioners really have the city’s best interest at heart, but it is really up to business people to bring back Pacific Avenue.
In a recent interview, Wildwood Commissioner Pete Byron agreed. He said it would be a long time before he sees a vital and thriving downtown again.
Three years ago, Byron’s proposal to install a synthetic ice skating rink in the downtown was met with criticism and did not win county support.
Since then, Byron, 59, director of Revenue and Finance and Planning and Redevelopment for the city, said no one has presented a substantial plan to bring business back to downtown.
“We have been in a downward spiral for years,” Byron said. “We need to give investors incentives to come to town. We need more aggressiveness by the business community to support the downtown.”
He said he was pleased about BIDs plans to bring in more business and said the city has revisited the master plan and may officially condense Pacific Avenue.
“We want to shorten the area and have more residential on the north and south ends,” Byron said. “People want an option other than the boardwalk. We need to give another reason to come to Wildwood. The city was at its best when we had a downtown district.”
Donio said city officials have done a fantastic job in securing grant federal and state money to revitalize the downtown facades. There are also tax incentives available for business owners who want to come to open a store in the city.
While business and city officials don’t always see things the same way, they all want a better downtown, one that could bring needed ratables to the city.
“I am on the front lines and believe me; I wouldn’t have lasted if we weren’t doing something right,” Donio said. “We know we have a lot of work to do, but there isn’t doom and gloom in Wildwood. Plenty of businesses are doing great. We just want more of them.”