Sea Bright's Economic Future Uncertain
The town has vowed to fight back following Hurricane Sandy, but recovery could take years.
There's no question in Mayor Dina Long's mind. Sea Bright will come back.
Its downtown businesses, many of them still shuttered, their signs hanging on buildings some of which will have to be torn down, will open again, someday, somewhere. The beach clubs, crushed by the surging flood waters during Hurricane Sandy, will welcome visitors back to their new cabanas and beaches eventually.
In the meantime, residents should brace themselves. It's not going to be pretty.
Long assured residents during a public post-Sandy information session Wednesday that the recovery effort would not wait. But it will take years, she said, for the town to recover a ratable base decimated by the late October storm.
In the interim, Long asked for residents to be patient, and to avoid listening to rumors that the town will fund its recovery by raising property taxes as high as 10 percent in its next budget. Though the recovery effort will be an expensive one, Long said she hopes it won't have to be funded by the local tax payers, at least not immediately.
Though she abstained from making a promise, Long said she and her fellow council members were working to present an upcoming budget with an increase at less than the state's mandated 2 percent cap increase.
It won't be enough to pay for rebuilding, but Long is hoping the federal government can help with that. Sea Bright applied for a Community Disaster Loan, which Long said she hopes will help the town get by for a couple for years.
Now it's just a matter of waiting to see how much the town gets.
But while long term funding solutions are still an unknown, Sea Bright is working to reopen for the summer, where it hopes the tourist dollar will help cover a bit of the shortfall.
And as recovery continues, the town is doing what it can to spruce up before the summer's beach tourist season.
Sand still covers sidewalks throughout the town, remnants not only of Sandy but of a shortsighted plan to load up the seawall with sand to protect the town from future storm damage, something Councilman Reed Murphy admitted hadn't worked out.
Debris is still piled up in some places, including along the main drag of Ocean Avenue. Still, some collapsed structures have simply been surrounded by temporary fencing.
"I'm not really happy with how the town looks five months after the disaster either," Long said. "We will have the downtown looking spiffy by Memorial Day."
One was Long and other town officials hope to make it happen is by giving property owners a deadline to cleanup and make repairs. Code enforcement officials will soon canvas the town and notify property owners of their potential violations. Then they'll be given a deadline. If the deadline passes without improvements having been made, fines will follow.
Improving the downtown's look is critical prior to beach season.
It's clear Murphy said, answering a resident's question about the state of the hurricane-battered downtown, that some more buildings will likely have to come down. It's been difficult to coordinate necessary demolitions, however.
"It's not that we don't want to get it done," he said. "It's that we're not getting the cooperation we need."
Tearing down buildings and eliminating businesses isn't what officials hoped for when they considered the recovery effort, but it needs to be done. There's hope that, down the road, Sea Bright will become an economically viable place to do businesses, but right now even that's a stretch.
Some of the tools used to generate interest in the town from business owners just aren't viable options right now, Long said. Tax abatements and other financial incentives the town would typically use to attract businesses aren't available and likely won't be for some time.
Sea Bright, Long said, is broke.
With essential tools in attracting business and development no longer on the table, the town will just have to improvise, or perhaps rely on some good will, when it comes to repairing its economic engine.
Long is hopeful things can turn around, despite current frustrations. Economic recovery starts will Memorial Day, she said.
"In the short term, we need to have a fantastic summer," Long said.