As part of their effort to attract tourists back to the storm-ravaged Jersey Shore for the summer season, New Jersey officials kicked off the season Friday by cutting 5.5-mile ribbon connecting Sandy-damaged towns -- breaking the Guinness world record for longest ribbon cutting. It was just one component of the state's $25 million "Stronger Than The Storm" initiative: New Jersey is also running television and radio ads encouraging people to visit the shore, and the state has erected billboards in Times Square and along heavily trafficked highways announcing that the shore is open for business.
Gov. Chris Christie, who is appearing in the taxpayer-funded promotional ads ahead of his reelection bid and was present at the ribbon cutting, is crisscrossing the shore over Memorial Day weekend in an effort to publicize every open boardwalk on the shore. Earlier this month, he accompanied Price Harry of Wales in a survey of the coastline, with the pair taking time to beat a boardwalk ball toss in Seaside Heights. on Friday, the band fun. and cast members from MTV's "Jersey Shore" also made the case to visitors to come this summer; next Tuesday, President Obama will show up at the shore for a photo-op with Christie.
"I want New Jersey, and the region, and the country to know that New Jersey has come back, that the summer will happen here in New Jersey and you need to bring your families here to enjoy and create new memories this summer, the summer of 2013 in New Jersey," Christie said Wednesday.
But despite the positive rhetoric, some summer shore memories will not be fond. Certain towns have simply not come back: Mantoloking and Ortley Beach are among the shore towns that remain badly damaged from Sandy, which hit landfall last October 29. Ortley Beach realtor Steve Krug, whose Ortley Beach location is finally reopening this weekend, said he lost most of his inventory in the town.
"And the inventory I do have, it's tough for people to rent houses where you're staring at a destruction zone," he said.
At the same time, there are places that have almost completely recovered: In the dune-protected towns of Lavallette and Seaside Heights, where once-destroyed boardwalks have been rebuilt in time for Memorial Day weekend, beaches and most businesses are ready and waiting for what they hope will be an influx of summer visitors ready for arcade games and funnel cakes. To the north, in the town of Ocean Grove near Asbury Park, the boardwalk has yet to be fully repaired but the town and its beaches otherwise looks good.
"I don't think I even knew it had been affected by the hurricane until I was back in New York and somebody told me," said New Yorker David Smithyman, who visited Ocean Grove earlier this month. He returned to the town this weekend to stay in a weekend rental with friends.
The message of normalcy has thus far not gotten through to enough summer renters, said Angela Holder, an Ocean Grove real estate broker. "The rental market has been very quiet. It's not as busy as it has been," she said. "I think people think the whole Jersey Shore was wiped out." The good news, she said, is that while rentals were way down in February and March, she is seeing an uptick in recent weeks as potential renters realize the town is in fine shape.
Brokers have experienced similar struggles along "the strip" further down the shore, a sliver of beach towns off the main coastline running roughly from Point Pleasant Beach through Seaside.
"We're definitely going to be down, summer rental-wise," said Lee Childers, who opened five rental offices on the strip over the past 33 years. "I'm hoping to do about 60 to 65 percent of what we did last year. At this stage, though, we're down more than that."
Childers has been offering an "out clause" in rental agreements to soothe the minds of nervous renters. They can come to the town 30 days in advance to inspect the property and surrounding area; if they don't like it, they can opt-out. "Most are not dropping out," he said. "We still have hesitation in getting them to sign the lease."
Part of the challenge is that while there are rental units in towns like Normandy Beach that are fully functional, there is a lot of construction still going on around them - with the potential for early-morning drilling that comes with it. Childers has recommended to clients that they lower their prices, and some have done so: Brokers say there are a plethora of good deals to be had on the shore for those who find the right property. The challenge is getting people to put in the legwork to find a rental they feel good about.
"I tell people to come down and look at it, but I can talk to you for 14 hours," said Krug. "Until you see it you just aren't going to feel comfortable."
The stakes are high: The 127-mile shore is responsible for about half of New Jersey's roughly $40 billion tourism industry, and many businesses rely on an influx of out-of-towners in the summer to stay afloat. Restaurants cannot hire the same number of seasonal staffers that they did in the past if there are too many empty seats, and stores selling fewer items mean less tax revenue for the cash-strapped state.
Brokers on the shore have expressed concerns that some renters will decide to spend their summer elsewhere this year - and decide they like it. T.J. Redefer, owner of Rehoboth Bay Realty Company in Dewey Beach, Delaware, said roughly 10 percent of his clients this year have been people from the New York and New Jersey area who have never vacationed at the Delaware beaches before.
"They call and they're excited and they've never been here before, so they ask a lot of questions about the different towns," said Redefer, who said rentals are up compared to last year. "It's kinda fun."
Broker Krug said he has had customers who have come to the shore for the past 10 or 15 years who are taking this summer off. But, he said, he was encouraged that they have been vowing to come back to an area that is one of the closest beach destinations for millions in the Northeast.
"I haven't gotten anyone who has said, 'I'm done with the shore,'" he said.