Officials say Somers Point's nightlife is riding on the Route 52 causeway
By ROB SPAHR Staff Writer | Posted: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 1:00 am
Somers Point’s Bay Avenue once served as the backdrop for major motion pictures, such as the cult classic “Eddie and the Cruisers,” and as the venue for live music albums such as Chubby Checker’s “In Person.”
And, like a summer breeze, the music of major acts used to drift down the one-mile waterfront strip, which in its glory days of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s was a premier destination for nights of dancing and drinking.
Gone are those days. The iconic nightclubs have closed or reformatted, and the avenue is now quiet.
City officials expect the upcoming completion of the $400 million Route 52 causeway project will bring an economic resurgence in Somers Point. Some, however, say it will take more than that to make Bay Avenue a viable destination again.
“Without a doubt the bridge being done will help us, and will give us a panoramic view into Somers Point that will really beautify that area and make it look great,” Mayor Jack Glasser said. “But things have changed since the heavy rock and roll days of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. People want a more family-oriented environment, with good places to eat and things to do....That’s what Bay Avenue will have to be.”
Bay Avenue is a nationally recognized historic district that dates to the 1700s, but the more modern history of the avenue is what people most often discuss.
“As automobiles became more prevalent and it became easier for people to drive to Ocean City, especially in the ’50s and ’60s, that’s when the nightlife on Bay Avenue really started to mushroom,” said Sally Hastings, president of the Somers Point Historical Society. “It became a mecca, because Somers Point was the wet town (Ocean City was and is dry) and it offered the kind of music that was very popular at that time.”
“Where’s the action? … Where’s the fun? — At the ‘Point,’” read the back of Chubby Checker’s 1963 album.
“If you were looking to have a good time, Bay Avenue was ‘the’ place, this and Wildwood,” said Pat Pierson, who has owned and operated Bayshores II Restaurant on Bay Avenue since 1987. “It was where the excitement was.”
Atlantic City casinos brought a change and by the mid 1980s, the excitement on Bay Avenue was waning, although the avenue would still remain popular as a place to party.
“(Casinos) ... offered a different kind of entertainment that people were gravitating to,” Hastings said. “That’s when businesses here started to struggle and close.”
“Bay Avenue used to be like going to a playoff game at the Meadowlands,” Pierson said “Now it’s like going to a high school game.”
Even though Bay Avenue is clearly different than it was during its heyday, some, such as Lou DeScioli, the director of the city’s Economic Development Committee argue it’s still vibrant.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” DeScioli said. “Some people think that it would be good to have that New Orleans Mardi Gras-style atmosphere here again. But I personally think that the Bay Avenue of today is better off, in terms of the economic vitality of the city.”
DeScioli said the expansion of Shore Medical Center (the former Shore Memorial Hospital), the opening of multiple fine-dining restaurants and the construction of more, and better-looking housing have contributed to better residential and economic climates.
Most recent discussions on the avenue have been about its potential.
“Picture that you’re coming from Ocean City and you’re on the crest of the new bridge ... looking down in this bayfront community with a Key West-style boardwalk that follows the bulkhead along all those business and is filled with bikes, baby carriages and people meandering up and down,” said Greg Sykora, the vice chairman of the city’s Planning Board.
Sykora was referring to one of the concepts of the city’s new Vision Plan. The plan recommends the construction of a long pier with boat slips near the public beach and sailable replica of the USS Intrepid to serve as a tourist attraction. The changing of ordinances — such as those controlling noise and outdoor dining — to make Bay Avenue more business friendly were also suggested.
“And once that area is dredged, it will be a place where transient boaters can come to eat in our restaurants and enjoy our bayfront. And there will be a water taxi that goes back and forth to Ocean City,” Sykora said.
That vision — created during about a year of surveying Somers Point residents, business owners and visitors — may be unrealistic.
“I really think that the theater is more important to Somers Point than the bridge,” Hastings said. “The theater will have the ability to bring in 250 people every night there is a show. So while the bridge will make it easier to get to and from Ocean City, the theater will bring them here for a longer period of time.”
Jim Dalfonso, the chairman of the Theater Collaborative of South Jersey, which is renovating the Gateway Theater, said he was a little surprised by how much hope is resting on the Gateway, but said the theater can “absolutely” live up to it, as long as enough money can be raised to complete its renovation.
“Even on a night when we have a light house, there will be 200 people here and a percentage of those people will be going out to eat or drink afterwards,” said Dalfonso, of Upper Township, adding the renovation could be completed in nine months if enough funding is raised.
The currently gutted theater’s lobby and second-floor lighting room were recently framed out and the floor was replaced. And Dalfonso said he expects work on the ceiling trusses and roof to be completed by the spring, so work can then move toward rehabilitating the building’s exterior.
And once completed, DeScioli said, the theater offers the best short-term opportunity to increase commerce on Bay Avenue.
“One of the things that we, as a community, can do if we want to do something to immediately improve that district is support the revival of the Gateway,” he said.
But of everything about Bay Avenue’s history, some say the thrill of simply going there could be the hardest to revive.
“The music is gone forever,” Pierson said. “I just hope they can make Bay Avenue sing again.”
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