'A million little pieces:' National Park Service, state lower boom on Atlantic City crafter village

The Crafters at Gardner's Basin in Atlantic City is being shut down by the National Park Service, , along with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, because the village's sheds violate regulations.

ATLANTIC CITY - Sometimes it seems the little people in Atlantic City can never get a break, especially the ones who run little businesses.

None are littler, maybe, than the 10 or so crafters who occupy temporary wooden huts in the warm months at Gardner's Basin, a hidden jewel in the Northeast Inlet, across the marina basin from Borgata. It's a cozy waterfront site near a commercial fishing dock that is home to the city's aquarium, a tavern, a breakfast spot, charter boats and epic sunsets.

Last week, the crafters were told to pack up their inventory (beads, crafts, shabby chic, dolls, hats, sunglasses, and the like) and not return — because the National Park Service and the state's Department of Environmental Protection say the sheds violate regulations.

"My heart is broken in a million little pieces," Kimberley Cantrell, owner of Kimmie's Knick Knack, wrote on Facebook after being told to remove her inventory from the shed and return the key.

Lisa Schall, director of the Atlantic City Aquarium/Historic Gardner's Basin, informed crafters of the move "with great sadness."

Because Gardner's Basin was established with $200,000 in Park Service money 40 years ago through a federal Land, Water and Conservation grant, as well as $300,000 from the state Green Acres fund, the Park Service and the state Department of Environmental Protection enforce a host of regulations covering open and recreational spaces.

"They have determined that the crafters' sheds don’t fit the definition of allowable use of a Green Acres-funded site," said Chris Seyer, head of the nonprofit Gardner's Basin Foundation, which operates the park and also receives funding from the city. "They deemed the sheds themselves are not conducive to the recreational priorities of the park. 

"I don’t agree with it," he added. "They're picking on the little guy."

Seyer said the city notified him after he submitted all leases related to Gardner's Basin for routine review. He said the city said the Park Service was objecting to the sheds. The restaurants and some larger shops, like a surf shop, that are housed in cedar buildings that date back to the original funding are not affected.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman with the DEP, said the regulations that stem from the original grant money prohibit for-profit businesses unless they are related to conservation or recreation.

He said those vendors that were not consistent with the requirements would have to move out for the city to be in compliance with state and federal regulations. He said that there was no strict deadline for that compliance, but that it could jeopardize future funding.

"Those that are not consistent with the federal requirement will have to move out," but not those that are more consistent with the federal requirement. 

"Bait and tackle shops would be consistent with enjoyment of recreation," he said. "A doll maker, not to single anybody out, is not. A jewelry shop is not."

He said meetings have been ongoing since the city proposed locating a rum distillery at Gardner's Basin - historically a rum runners' locale and was told it violated Green Acres regulations. Little Water Distillery subsequently opened in a renovated warehouse on Baltic Avenue. 

John Warren, chief of communications with the National Park Service's Northeast Region in Philadelphia, said Thursday afternoon,  “We’re looking into it. It involves Washington.”

Seyer said he hoped the city would be able to negotiate at least a one-year reprieve because the crafters have already purchased inventory for the season.

He said the Park Service had also questioned the foundation's use of volunteer gardeners to landscape the area. He recently gave a tour to nine regulators, he said.

Calls to the city's Planning Department seeking comment were not returned.

Crafters are planning to attend City Council next week, and Sayer said the city  is trying to broker a solution. The city has multiple tracts of land that are governed by Green Acres regulations.

Currently at Gardner's Basin there are an aquarium and event space, a tavern (Back Bay Ale House), a breakfast spot (Gilchrist's), charter boat tours, a surf shop, and, in the summer, a couple of food trucks, a bar, and live music of varying sorts. It's a spot that locals cherish and most think could be even better —Atlantic City's version of Spruce Street Harbor Park perhaps, with working clam boats just up the way. And instead of shipping containers for vendors, there were these little sheds.

(Across New Hampshire Avenue is a vacant tract owned by the Kushner Cos., which the city has been unable to persuade the company owned by real estate investor and White House adviser Jared Kushner to either develop or sell back to the city.)

A new Boardwalk in the Inlet section will ultimately connect to Gardner's Basin, making the Park Service's decision about a village that has been there for years more puzzling. The little wooden houses can be dismantled and transported to another location.

Cantrell, who says she and the others pay a modest rental fee for the season and engage with lots of tourists and locals at Gardner's Basin, said she could not understand why the village would be shut down.

To "every person who came, we were representatives of Atlantic City," she said. "Everyone who came through said this is such a gem. They loved it."

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