At Shore, no dampening merchants' spirits

Margie (left) and Jack McKenna take a stroll on the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, on this rainy Memorial Day, Monday, May 30th, 2016. Margie said, "Any day is a good day at the beach!"

OCEAN CITY - Two picture perfect beach days at the New Jersey Shore this Memorial Day weekend, followed by a rainy, foggy close to the unofficial start of the summer season on Monday, drove home the point for Anna Palmieri:

For beach town businesses such as hers, which depend on the brief tourist season to be in the black for the year, it's all about the weather.

Palmieri has for 22 years owned Litterers, an Ocean City boardwalk institution that's been around since 1918 selling fruit juices, salads, and pizza.

Nice weather on Saturday and Sunday brought stacked traffic on the Atlantic City Expressway, the Garden State Parkway, and Route 9; lines out the door at bars and restaurants; and "No Vacancy" signs on some hotels and motels.

Beaches and boardwalks from Long Beach Island south to Cape May were packed with visitors seeking to dip their toes in the water while the sun was shining.

Monday was a different story: Fog enveloped much of the shoreline and beachgoers were scant.

"We were glad for the nice weather the last few days. Overall, the weather in May was really bad for us here. . . . But we are optimistic for the summer," said Palmieri as she chopped and diced fruit to make smoothies for the few customers who braved the rain for a boardwalk stroll. "The final outcome will all depend on the weather over the summer. You have good days and bad days weather-wise, like today. You just never know."

And so began a season that will last from now through Labor Day and for eight prime weeks during that span offers Shore business owners a make-it-or-break-it window of opportunity to purvey their goods and services to the visiting throngs.

But Diane F. Wieland, director of the Cape May County Department of Tourism, said Palmieri and others have reason to be optimistic:

Despite the economic woes in neighboring Atlantic County, where Atlantic City's casino industry has imploded, with several gaming halls closing, tourism along the southernmost sections of the Shore, in Cape May County, saw an increase - about 4 percent - in the number of people visiting over the winter, she said.

"That is an indicator of what the summer could be like," said Wieland. "It means that if people were interested in being here in the dead of winter, they will surely be back to soak up the summer sun."

Atlantic City's problems may actually be driving some visitors who take the Atlantic City Expressway eastbound to make a right turn when they get to the Garden State Parkway interchange and head for Cape May County's beach towns, Wieland said.

"It looks like, so far, what Atlantic City may be losing, we seem to be gaining," Wieland said.

The tourism sector in New Jersey in 2015 generated $37.3 billion, supporting about 318,000 jobs. In Cape May County - where there is little other industry - tourism is a $6 billion-a-year industry, Wieland said.

She said the good news is that across the board, so far for 2016, the retail, food and beverage, and amusement sectors in Cape May County have also seen a 4 percent increase in business over last year between January and May.

"So last year was a record-setting year for us in terms of tourism dollars," Wieland said. "So with a 4 percent increase so far, without the season even kicking in, we are definitely optimistic for this summer."

Wieland said the "shoulder season," or off-season, increase may in part have to do with an expanded wedding industry, which is currently being promoted, and the opening of several new wineries in the last five years. Special events such as music festivals and birding and other ecotourism also are bringing more people to the area.

"It's the 'build it and they shall come' syndrome. . . . People are coming here these days for more than just beaches," said Wieland, who is among a cadre of speakers scheduled to participate Wednesday in the annual panel discussion in Atlantic City called the Jersey Shorecast.

The event will open the season for regional businesses with academic and industry experts discussing their outlook for the upcoming tourism season. Speakers will include Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian and Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality, and Tourism at Stockton University in Galloway Township.

But back in Ocean City by midday Monday, the steady rain meant a steady stream of vehicles leaving the barrier island.

The poor weather apparently prompted many to conclude their visit to the Shore earlier rather than later, although some decided to wait out the traffic with a stop at the boardwalk before leaving town.

"Yeah it's raining, but why sit in traffic," said Denise Padua, 37, of Marlton, who had spent the weekend visiting family in Ocean City with her husband and two young children.

"We can grab a nice lunch, do a little shopping, and then head home when the traffic eases up a little," Padua said. "We love it here rain or shine, so what's the rush?"

jurgo@phillynews.com

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@JacquelineUrgo

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