December 10, 2012

N.Y., N.J. ponder new boardwalks without the boards

The destruction of Superstorm Sandy will likely result in some changes along the shoreline, with more wooden walkways giving way to concrete or synthetic materials.

Wayne Parry / The Associated Press

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. — They're the places where generations of families savored fast-melting ice cream cones and chowed down on garlicky slices of pizza, where teens scoped out potential dates, where a tipsy Snooki tottered unsteadily, and under which the Drifters sang about falling in love.

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Rubble sits where the boardwalk used to be in Seaside Heights, N.J. Seaside Heights, like many other coastal towns, is racing to rebuild its boardwalk from Superstorm Sandy's damage in time for next summer's tourism season.

The Associated Press

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Belmar, N.J., Mayor Matthew Doherty points to hurricane tie-down straps under the one tiny section of boardwalk in his community that survived Superstorm Sandy. The borough used the straps in an experimental section to see if it withstood storm damage better than normal boardwalk construction. Belmar is spending $20 million to rebuild its boardwalk, and will use the tie-down straps on the entire new project.

The Associated Press

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For all their nostalgia, boardwalks are still a major economic engine for shoreline communities in New Jersey and New York. Tourists and residents alike spend their money on food and drinks there, or on games of skee ball or balloon darts to win a stuffed animal. So weeks after Superstorm Sandy, towns are racing to rebuild their boardwalks by May, for reasons both sentimental and financial.

They will need the tourism money this summer more than ever as they try to rebuild homes and other infrastructure. The expensive efforts are forcing decisions not only about how much to spend, but also whether to rebuild with environmentally sensitive wood or more durable materials.

The destruction in Seaside Heights has become emblematic of the storm because of a roller coaster that plunged into the ocean. Yet Sandy also destroyed the boardwalk where families eat belly-busting foods like zeppoles — fried dough laden with powdered sugar — and where Snooki and company partied their way through the MTV reality show "Jersey Shore."

Mayor Bill Akers said 75 percent of his town's budget comes from tourism, with the remaining 25 percent raised from local taxpayers.

"You can see how important it is for us to get the boardwalk back up and running, and to make sure we have a summer season," he said. "It's something we have to get done."

Seaside Heights, like several other Jersey shore towns, is soliciting bids to rebuild its boardwalk; Akers estimated it will take $10 million to $12 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse towns for 75 percent of those costs, but local governments first must front all the money themselves, forcing many to borrow in the short or long term.

In these towns, even in the many non-commercial sections where boardwalks are merely a non-sandy way to get from here to there, not having one is not an option.

Terri Bissell moved to Seaside Heights 15 years ago after visiting it each summer for decades. Her parents started vacationing there 70 years ago.

"It was like heaven, coming down here to the boardwalk," she said. "It was our own little piece of heaven; that's why we bought here. The kids are so happy when they're on that boardwalk. Parents are always dying to bring their kids someplace to keep them busy; the Seaside Heights boardwalk has always been that place."

To the north, Belmar has approved the largest boardwalk rebuilding project so far in the aftermath of the storm, committing $20 million to rebuild its 1.3-mile boardwalk and haul away the remnants of the old one. It is also considering erecting a steel sea wall to be buried under sand dunes to help protect the boardwalk and homes and businesses.

"The beach and the boardwalk go together," said Mayor Matthew Doherty. "It's who we are; it's part of our identity."

Yet identity only goes so far in shore towns' calculus. Money is a bigger factor.

"If there's no boardwalk, people aren't going to come this summer," Doherty said. "They'll go somewhere else, and if they like it there, they won't be back here. We want to be the first in the race to get things started for the summer."

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