Wildwood businesses grapple with culture shift this season

A successful resort town is all about how well it cultivates a niche, Jack Morey believes. And Morey, the executive vice president of Morey’s Piers, has been watching his beloved Wildwood experience a culture shift over the last five years — from the mid-century motels that have defined the town’s aesthetic for decades to newer condominiums.

“Personally, I don’t believe that preservation is the way to go,” Morey said. “It’s about reinvention and maintaining uniqueness in our culture.”

But balancing reinvention and development with preservation of the nostalgia seen in the neon signs of doo-wop motels can be tricky. A number of historic Wildwood motels and buildings have been demolished over the last few years, making way for new real estate projects. (Morey’s Piers owns five of these hotels.)

The rapid development has caused problems for some local businesses that were already unsatisfied with a slow season, citing earlier first days of school for the dwindling business during Labor Day weekend as well as inclement weather throughout the summer.

“I had to go on Facebook Live to show people, ‘Hey, it’s not raining. The weatherman is wrong,’” said Dino Pierelli, co-owner of Route 66 Restaurant and Pizzeria. “I think everyone on the boardwalk is unhappy with the weatherman this year. The inaccuracy of the predictions definitely hurt us.”

Ria Pierelli, the other co-owner of Route 66, said that the condo boom has cut down on how many people are eating in local restaurants. Many tourists are opting to purchase groceries and cook at home.

“We actually don’t see a lot of people who are just here for the weekend because condos require at least a week’s worth of renting. It’s definitely a deterrent,” she said.

Denise Palek, Lollipop Motel’s general manager, said that tourists choose to stay at motels are asking for more amenities. Palek said that guests who have been staying at the doo-wop landmark since the 1950s have been asking her to install ramps and elevators.

“I spent $800,000 over the last five years making improvements,” she said. “People want larger refrigerators, but I believe that if you’re going to increase the rates at the motels, you have to give them something that’s worth their money.”

Palek said that she thinks that Wildwood’s doo-wop identity will eventually die out. “The younger visitors don’t really care as much about that,” she said.

Steve Lee, a local who works at what he described as a “condotel,” agreed. “I don’t believe that the whole 1950s culture vibe is what’s drawing people in the summer,” he said. “The older people who are into that kind of stuff don’t come down until the fall, when the car shows happen.”

Morey said that Wildwood’s ’50s feel is more about a timeless aesthetic and less about history.

“I think that right now the 1950s is trendy, and it’s sort of hip,” he said. “I love it when people come here for the first time, like from Manhattan, and they like it better than Disney World because there’s a certain sense of authenticity. There’s a difference in promoting nostalgia versus something that’s stuck in time.”

And in his mind, there’s a way to balance development and changing clientele while also making sure what people love about Wildwood — its unpretentiousness and nostalgia — stays the same. Focusing on the offerings of the town, such as its extremely wide beach and seaside entertainment complexes, means that he doesn’t view development as a threat.

“Maintaining a culture is the important part,” Morey said. “You can define your own culture, or you can let someone else define it for you. I mean, we would appreciate it if new construction was thoughtful, but sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.”