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Slow start at hurricane-ravaged coast, but businesses expect big comeback

May 26, 2014 - 12:05am

Amanda Gibson, 25, strolled along Jenkinson’s Boardwalk in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., with two friends. The sky was overcast, and it was chilly; the few people on the beach were covered in sweat shirts and, while there were more people on the boardwalk, it seemed pretty empty for Memorial Day weekend.

“Even an average weekend in the summer would probably be busier than this,” said Gibson, who is from Lavallette.

The beach season of 2014 — the second since Hurricane Sandy slammed the Jersey coast — got off to a slow start. With predictions of a better year for the state’s beleaguered Shore and plenty of evidence of recovery, especially in the areas that draw day-trippers and vacationers, crowds were thin at destinations up and down the Shore.

“The one thing we can’t control is the weather,” said Toby Wolf, director of marketing for Jenkinson’s Boardwalk.

Tourism experts say they expect an increase in visits and spending this summer at the Shore. They say the economy is stronger, families are more willing to spend on travel, and most towns have recovered from the devastation wrought by the monster storm of October 2012.

But some hard-hit areas continue to show the scars. They include Mantoloking and Ortley Beach on the barrier island of Ocean County, as well as Sea Bright in Monmouth County, where surging storm waters damaged or destroyed thousands of homes and businesses.

And some business owners struggling to rebuild have complained that the state has been too slow in funneling federal disaster aid to them.

Still, the tourism industry is trying to get the word out to potential visitors that most of the Shore is open for business.

“We have a good feeling about the summer,” said Bill Gehlhaus, co-owner of the 110-year-old, family-owned Keansburg Amusement Park and Runaway Rapids water park, which underwent more than $3.5 million in repairs after Sandy.

“It was a rough winter, and I think everybody wants to get out,” Gehlhaus, 61, added. “The economy is not great, but it’s stronger than it was. And people will always spend money on their kids.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Grace Hanlon, executive director of the state Division of Travel and Tourism.

“I’m very optimistic about this summer,” she said. “We have more businesses up and running than last year.”

There were many Jersey Shore loyalists among the visitors, who said nothing would stop them from coming to the beach. Some said they had encountered heavy traffic on Friday night on the Garden State Parkway.

“Whether it’s rain or shine, no one cares,” said Melissa Pena, a 23-year-old from River Vale who was on Jenkinson’s.

Many also said they were impressed with the new boardwalks and renovated businesses reconstructed since last year.

“They actually got all the construction almost done,” said a surprised Christine Gustafson, 19, of Clifton, who was walking the boardwalk with Amanda Gibson on Saturday.

Wolf, the Jenkinson’s marketing director, also noted that the boardwalk had been packed with families on Easter and Mother’s Day.