It was the second time the group had met. Rumors swirled, as they often do, that the topic of discussion was the potential development of large-scale hotels along the Boardwalk. Contacted afterward, several of those who attended the meeting declined to offer any details of the discussion, while others would not even confirm there was a meeting at all.
That changed Thursday, as the race for the mayor’s seat between incumbent Jay Gillian and challenger Keith Hartzell, a City Council member, again spilled into the regular council meeting.
The vote in the nonpartisan election is May 10. Also on the ballot are six candidates for at-large seats on council.
Hartzell has raised the specter of multistory hotels and condominiums as part of his campaign. Several residents have said he told them that, if elected mayor, he would block high-rise development on the Boardwalk. At the council meeting Thursday, he said three different property owners have contacted him saying they plan to put hotels on the Boardwalk.
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Hartzell did not name the owners. He said they told him the additional development was needed to bring fresh capital to the Boardwalk, helping fund improvements and updates there.
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“I don’t want Boardwalk Disney. I want Ocean City just the way it is,” Hartzell said at the meeting, putting emphasis on each word. “I said I’m dead set against it and I’ll do anything in my power to stop it.”
Further complicating matters is a suggestion that some of the hotels would be able to serve alcohol, a deeply unpopular concept in dry Ocean City. A member of the public raised the possibility, suggesting a hotel with 100 rooms could have a bar.
At the meeting, city attorney Dottie McCrosson said that is inaccurate. In New Jersey, the number of liquor licenses allowed in a municipality under state law is determined by the population. It is true that a hotel with more than 100 rooms would be allowed a license, regardless of how many others existed in a community, but that decision would still rest with council, she said.
At the same meeting, Councilman Jody Levchuk, a Boardwalk businessman, said he was present at the February meeting of Boardwalk property owners. He said Gillian owes council a more detailed explanation of plans for the Boardwalk zone.
Gillian was not at the council meeting Thursday. He declined to be interviewed about the matter Friday, offering instead a statement in which he said the proposals Hartzell has described would not be allowed under Ocean City’s zoning rules.
“There may be people who want to build hotels or high-rises in Ocean City — but I do not, and I never did. There may be people who want to see alcohol in Ocean City — but not me,” Gillian said. “I don’t want to talk about what other people want to do, especially when those things are not permitted by law. I want to talk about my 12-year record as mayor.”
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City resident Frank Worrell, a Gillian supporter, started the discussion when he raised the issue during the public comment portion of the council meeting. He challenged Hartzell, suggesting he would be in a better position to block Boardwalk development or shape zoning laws as a councilman than he would as mayor.
At the same council meeting, resident Gregg Balin spoke about the February meeting on the Boardwalk, suggesting a $150 million hotel was discussed there, and that the proposal could be “a pathway” to a liquor license in the city. Ocean City has never had any liquor licenses.
“So what’s the plan here? Is the mayor involved in this project?” Balin said. “What’s the plan? Who benefits?”
He said Gillian was at the February meeting.
Another speaker mentioned Eustice Mita, the owner of Icona Resorts, which operates hotels in Cape May, Avalon and elsewhere, and Achristavest, which specializes in high-end homes. In 2021, Mita invested in Gillian’s business, Wonderland Piers, which had been in his family since 1929. This came as the property was reportedly in default of $8 million in loans.
Contacted on Friday, Mita said he started his career in the amusement business. An Ocean City resident, Mita said he has no plans for a hotel there but left open the possibility in the future.
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“We have zero plans for that,” Mita said. “If the citizenry wants it, we’ll consider it.”
Mita said the city has not seen a new landmark hotel in decades and described hotels as the driving force of tourism, upon which the city’s economy depends. He said national chains like Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt won’t take the risk of building for a seasonal economy, especially where they will not be able to sell alcohol.
“We have hotels in Avalon, Cape May and Diamond Beach. We’re rated number one by Trip Advisor. We would love to bring that same reputation for first-class hotels to Ocean City,” Mita said.
Despite saying he had no plans, Mita did say he was looking at several potential sites for a hotel in the city and could have a decision on one within the next six months. It would not be a high-rise, he said.
“I don’t want a high-rise hotel. I don’t own any high-rise hotels. I don’t build any high-rise hotels,” Mita said.
Mita criticized Hartzell, saying he was spreading rumors.
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“I have nothing against Keith Hartzell. But I don’t think he should be slinging mud like this,” Mita said.
At the council meeting, Hartzell said one of the unnamed developers made a threat. Hartzell said the man told him he would do anything he could to stop him.
“I said, OK, now we have something to talk about. Now we have something to go back and forth on in an election,” Hartzell said at the meeting. “These are all facts. It’s all true.”
“My opponent seems to be making up imaginary problems he can solve. I have a record of tackling, and solving, real issues: drainage, back bay dredging, Boardwalk replacement and so on,” Gillian said in his statement.
However the mayor’s race plays out, and if there eventually are applications submitted to the city’s Planning and Zoning boards for new projects along the Boardwalk, there is already a multistory, 111-unit condominium hotel project with approvals for 1101 Ocean Ave. close to the Boardwalk. Last May, the Planning Board granted final site plan approval for a luxury project in a parking lot next to The Flanders hotel.
That project, known as The Soleil, had been in the works for years. Initially proposed in 2005, the Planning Board had rejected the proposal, but in 2017, a Superior Court judge sided with the applicant.
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While the proposal had met firm opposition from neighbors in the past, there were no comments from the public at the remotely held meeting in May 2021.
So far, while a website touts the property as the ultimate luxury condominium resort, there is no indication of any work starting soon at the site, which continues to operate as a parking lot. On Saturday, with the city’s long-running Doo Dah Parade underway, cars parked in the lot for $10, with signs along the outside wall showing images of the Soleil project approved last year.
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