Rebuilding New Jersey' Shore, One Boardwalk At A Time

May 26, 2013
Originally published on May 26, 2013 2:00 pm

When Hurricane Sandy swept through New Jersey last year, it destroyed many homes and businesses. It also obliterated the boardwalks that are the center of social and economic life in the towns.

In the months since, many of these towns have rushed to rebuild their boardwalks, but not everyone thinks the money has been well spent.

The boardwalk in Belmar, N.J., was among those destroyed and scattered all over town. But just seven months later, the town has managed to rebuild all 1.3 miles of it. It's now made of synthetic wood on pilings dug deep into the sand — at a cost of more than $8 million.

"We promised that a new boardwalk would be built in time for Memorial Day, and today I can proudly say we have delivered," Mayor Matt Doherty said at a ceremony to mark the effort this week.

The federal government will pay for much of the boardwalk, but to kick-start the project the town held what it called an adopt-a-board campaign. It raised nearly $700,000 from private donors to offset the town's costs.

Belmar isn't alone.

"Boardwalks are opening all over New Jersey, and I'm going to try and be at every one of them," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who's been going from one ribbon-cutting to another all week.

The rush to rebuild boardwalks is testament to the role they play in towns like Belmar. In many places, boardwalks are lined with seasonal businesses, restaurants, T-shirt shops and bike-rental stores.

Tom Arnone, a Monmouth County, N.J., official, says boardwalks bring in huge amounts of money to the towns, and also pay a lot of taxes.

"[There's also] all the businesses that rely on it and then all the jobs that we're putting people back to work," Arnone says. "That's why it was so important for all of us to work together and be in a partnership to make this happen."

But boardwalks also play a certain emotional role in the life of New Jersey towns. Belmar has had a boardwalk since 1875. It's a place to hang out, meet friends or just stroll and contemplate the ocean.

Every day Phil Sanfilippo, who's retired from the Defense Department, walks the boardwalk for five miles from Seagirt to Belmar and back.

"It gave us an empty feeling when we came down here and all this was gone," Sanfilippo says. "Now you may say, 'Well, that's stupid,' when people lost their homes. However you take away a person's identity and you take away their being, and to us down here, the boardwalks are what it's all about."

But a lot of people did lose their homes in Belmar, and some of them aren't so happy about the new boardwalk.

Gail Hershey, who runs a beach shop in town, has been here for 19 years. She says she understands why towns like Belmar made their boardwalks a priority because of the money, but sees how those who lost homes might feel pushed aside.

"I'm still out of my house and that's unfortunate, and I know a lot of my friends are still out of their homes," Hershey says. "A lot of them feel the towns put all their money into the boardwalks and didn't help as much with the homes and the people."

New Jersey officials acknowledge that many homeowners are still hurting and considerable work remains to be done to repair the damage Sandy left behind. But they also say beach towns like Belmar make a lot of their tax revenue along their boardwalks, and if they can't do that, the task of rebuilding will become much harder.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Hurricane Sandy swept through New Jersey last year, it left a lot of homes and businesses destroyed. On the Jersey shore, it also obliterated the boardwalks that are the center of social and economic life there. Many towns have rushed to rebuild their boardwalks, but not everyone thinks the money has been well spent. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports from the town of Belmar.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Hurricane Sandy pretty much wiped out the boardwalk in Belmar, scattering sections of it all over town. But today, just seven months later, the town has managed to rebuild it entirely - 1.3 three miles of synthetic wood on pilings dug deep into the sand at a cost of more than $8 million. Mayor Matt Doherty appeared at a ceremony to mark the effort this week.

MATT DOHERTY: We promised that a new boardwalk would be built in time for Memorial Day, and today I can proudly say that we have delivered.

(APPLAUSE)

ZARROLI: Much of the boardwalk will be paid for by the federal government, but to kick-start the project the town held what it called an adopt-a-board campaign. It raised nearly $700,000 from private donors to offset the town's costs. And Belmar isn't alone.

GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Damn, boardwalks are opening all over New Jersey, and I'm hoping to try to be at every one of them over the course of the next five or six days.

ZARROLI: That's Governor Chris Christie, who's been going from one ribbon-cutting to another all week. The rush to rebuild boardwalks is testament to the role they play in towns like Belmar. In many places, boardwalks are lined with seasonal businesses; restaurants, T-shirt shops and bike rental stores. Tom Arnone, a Monmouth County official, says boardwalks bring in huge amounts of money to the towns and also pay a lot of taxes.

TOM ARNONE: Millions and millions of dollars revenue. All the businesses that rely on it and then all the jobs that we're putting people back to work. That's why it was so important for all of us to work together and be in a partnership to make this happen.

ZARROLI: But boardwalks also play a certain emotional role in the life of New Jersey towns. It's a place to hang out, meet friends or just stroll and contemplate the ocean. Everyday Phil Sanfilippo, who's retired from the Defense Department, walks the boardwalk for five miles from Sea Girt to Belmar and back.

PHIL SANFILIPPO: It gave us an empty feeling when we came down here and all this was gone. Now, you may say, well, that's stupid when people lost their homes. However, you take away a person's identity, you take away their being. And to us down here, the boardwalks are what it's all about.

ZARROLI: But a lot of people did lose their homes in Belmar, and some of them aren't so happy about the new boardwalk.

GAIL HERSHEY: This rack is $14.95 or two for 28.

ZARROLI: Gail Hershey runs the Beach Bum, which sells T-shirts and beach chairs and suntan lotion. She says she understands why towns like Belmar made boardwalks their priority.

HERSHEY: That's how they make their money, the towns, but I don't know. I'm still out of my house and that's unfortunate, and I know a lot of my friends are still out of their homes. And a lot of them feel that the towns that have the boardwalks put all their money into the boardwalks and didn't help as much with the homes and the people.

ZARROLI: New Jersey officials acknowledge that a lot of homeowners are still hurting and considerable work remains to be done to repair the damage that Sandy left behind. But they also say beach towns like Belmar make a lot of their tax revenue along their boardwalks, and if they can't do that the task of rebuilding will become a lot harder. Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.