Belmar Mayor Matthew Doherty recalls waking on Oct. 29, the morning after Hurricane Sandy tore through the region, and “literally seeing things that I only saw on TV.” Floodwaters seeped through one-quarter of the borough, but never receded with the tide, and a mile-long stretch of wreckage remained where its popular boardwalk once stood.
The story of Belmar, which is now moving quickly to rebuild its boardwalk, set the stage for the panel discussion at today's annual NJBIZ Real Estate Symposium. Speakers at the event said while hard-hit regions in New Jersey have moved quickly to recover, the state has many challenges as it rebuilds in a post-Sandy environment.
Doherty said crews recently drove the last of about 3,000 pilings for its new boardwalk, which Belmar plans to open by Memorial Day weekend. The next step is to urge the borough's 140 small businesses to be ready, he said, noting that even with the destruction from Sandy, seasonal beach badge revenue already is up 48 percent over last year.
"The important message I'm giving to our businesses is that people are coming," he said "We don't want this to be a flash in the pan, so when they come, you've got to be prepared."
Doherty also said he was encouraged that since Sandy, multiple developers have expressed interest in building along the boardwalk and waterfront. He noted that "you can be a town that got hit hard but still come back and be business-friendly, because at the end of the day, that's what's going to expand your commercial tax base and relieve some of the stress from your residential taxpayers."
Peter Kasabach, executive director of the smart growth group New Jersey Future, said a key to rebuilding from Sandy was recognizing for "the new normal," which he said includes severe storms at greater frequency and rising sea levels. He also called for planning that goes beyond new federal flood elevations, with ideas like "swapping" land uses, moving "more passive uses closer to the shore … and moving some of our more intense uses, like housing and commercial, a little bit farther away."
Kasabach also called for building smarter, more resilient infrastructure and communities, rather than simply rebuilding. That's especially important with the state poised to "have access to federal and state recourses and assistance for a longer time."
"While nobody wants to look at Sandy as an opportunity, when you do have a lot of damage, and you have a lot of money to reinvest in these places — let's use that money wisely," Kasabach said.
Building stronger resonated with Doherty, who said Belmar's new boardwalk has pilings that are 25 feet deep and 6 feet apart, while the old pilings were 6 feet deep and 10 feet apart.
The keynote speaker at the event, Economic Development Authority CEO Michele Brown, recounted the devastation across the state and spoke of the wide-ranging government effort to speed the recovery. Those efforts include everything from rebuilding Route 35 to having regulators track insurance claims.
But Brown highlighted the state's focus on showcasing the Jersey Shore and aiding its businesses. The state is launching a federally funded $25 million marketing campaign to promote Shore tourism, with the goal of dispelling the belief that the entire coastline was destroyed.
"It's not going to be anymore complicated than, 'We are open. Please come,' " she said.
As for businesses, she noted that "we have to help them now, because if we don't help them through this summer season, they won't make it to the next summer season."
Following Brown, recently installed Rutgers University President Robert Barchi detailed the future of the state's public higher education system. When the state-mandated merger with the University of Medicine and Dentistry is complete, the university will be a $3.2 billion business, with 25 million square feet of space in 950 buildings.
And while the costs of learning continue to rise, he said, "there's no question that the economic value for an education is still there." But operating the university becomes increasingly challenging in New Jersey, with public funding declining.
Barchi noted that New Jersey spends more on K-12 education than any other state in the country, but far less on higher education. The Garden State also is one of three that don't have annual capital expenditures for higher education.
With Rutgers "doing this on our own," he said it's critical that the university become better connected with the business community.