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South Jersey

Sunday, July 22, 2001
Development thrusts change upon once-sleepy Brigantine

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    Courier-Post Staff

    Helen Mott remembers when going shopping meant paying a dime to ride a bus over the bridge into Atlantic City.

    Back then, there wasn't much on the barrier island of Brigantine.

    "Nothing but greenheads," said Mott's friend, Millie Conover.

    The two friends, both 77, are lifelong Brigantine residents and volunteers at the Brigantine Beach Historical Museum.

    At one time, "we knew everybody in Brigantine," Mott said.

    They said things changed when the first casino, Resorts, opened in Atlantic City in 1978.

    As more casinos rose on the Atlantic City boardwalk, workers flooded nearby Brigantine looking for places to live.

    In 1980, the island's population was 8,318. Ten years later, it had grown to 11,354. Now, 12,594 people live on the 6.39-square-mile island year-round.

    With the increased population came typical problems such as traffic congestion and more crime.

    Mott, Conover and some other longtime residents worry that a massive casino resort under construction in Atlantic City's Marina District nearby will drastically change the identity of their island. The Boyd Gaming Corp. is building the $1 billion Borgata, which is scheduled to open in summer 2003. It will create 3,000 jobs. In addition, MGM Mirage plans to build its own resort on 55 acres adjacent to the Borgata.

    A $330 million connector tunnel, which will link the Atlantic City Expressway to the Marina District casinos and Brigantine, is scheduled to open Thursday.

    Already, real estate prices on the island are climbing; investors are scrambling to grab properties they can resell to people arriving for jobs at the new casino.

    "They're going to need some place to stay," said Joe Musumeci, co-owner of Atlantic Coast Realtors and president of the Brigantine Beach Chamber of Commerce.

    A duplex valued at $150,000 last year recently sold for $ 297,000, Musumeci said. In turn, the average year-round rent on a home has increased from $650 a month to $1,000 a month.

    Increasing property values are driving up summer rental rates as well, to the point that rentals are down about 20 percent compared with last summer, Musumeci said. His agency still had rental properties available by the Fourth of July, which he said is unusual.

    The impending opening of the tunnel connector and the Borgata are "changing the whole island," said Musumeci, a Brigantine resident since 1980.

    Mayor Phil Guenther said the town has a good relationship with the two casinos already in the Marina District, Harrah' s Atlantic City and Trump Marina.

    Brigantine is prepared for the influx of new year-round residents the Borgata will bring, the mayor said.

    In 1996, the town revised its master plan to control the number of duplexes being built and encourage more single- family homes.

    "We wanted to protect the character of the island," Guenther said. "We're primarily a residential community."

    But even as far back as the 1600s, the island attracted vacationers.

    Records indicate that the Lenni Lenape Indians migrated to the island during the warmer months for fishing. Artifacts they left behind - such as arrowheads, grinding stones and ax heads - are on display at the historical museum.

    The museum also has newspaper clippings, photos and artifacts recounting more than 300 shipwrecks off Brigantine.

    During the late 1600s, the island served as a whaling port and attracted pirates who prowled offshore.

    The island remained mostly uninhabited until the mid- 1800s, when it became a resort with several large hotels. In the late 1800s, the Brigantine Improvement Co. tried to lure property buyers by briefly changing the island's name to "North Atlantic City."

    The city incorporated as Brigantine in 1897. Twenty years later, the island had only 54 full-time residents and an operating budget of $5,400.

    By the early 1920s, the automobile offered a new way to reach Brigantine. The Island Development Co., which owned most of Brigantine, capitalized with large-scale development.

    In 1924, a bridge linking Brigantine and Atlantic City opened, creating a land boom. But five years later, the Great Depression hit, people stopped buying homes and the Island Development Co. went out of business. The company deeded its undeveloped land to the city.

    In 1944, a hurricane damaged the Brigantine Bridge, the island's only access to the mainland. For 21 months, residents had to be ferried on and off the island during repairs.

    A new bridge replaced the original in 1972.

    After World War II, developers found plenty of affordable land on the island and built houses for returning soldiers and their growing families.

    The Brigantine Beach survived major storms in 1944 and 1962, and the town has developed steadily since then.

    Brigantine has plenty of modern touches, such as a sea wall that doubles as a promenade running from Seventh Street North to 14th Street North. The half-mile sea wall was built in 1996. Walkers, joggers, in-line skaters and sunbathers all take advantage of the promenade, which has benches and water fountains.

    Also, the 42nd Street Recreation Complex has eight tennis courts, hockey rinks and a skateboard and in-line skating park.

    One of the island's more unusual attractions is the Marine Mammal Stranding Center on Brigantine Boulevard. The nonprofit center, which opened in 1978, rescues seals, dolphins, sea turtles, whales and other marine life that wash ashore on New Jersey beaches. Last year, the center responded to 120 strandings. In most cases, the animals are brought back to the center for rehabilitation and eventually released. The center is open to the public.

    In the adjacent sea life museum, visitors can view life- size models of the sharks, fish and mammals that call the waters off New Jersey home.

    While the face of Brigantine may be changing, some of the reminders of the old island still stand.

    The Brigantine Lighthouse is a landmark in the center of town. The Island Development Co. built the nonfunctioning lighthouse in 1926 as an advertising tool. In the 1930s, Brigantine's police department used the lighthouse as its headquarters. In 1995, a group of volunteers refurbished the deteriorating structure.

    Built the same year as the lighthouse, the Brigantine Hotel on Ocean Avenue is a reminder of the island's history as an alternative resort to Atlantic City.

    Ramada Resorts bought the hotel in 1989 and converted it into condominiums, but kept the building's facade.

    Mott and Conover, the lifelong residents, help preserve Brigantine's history while watching their island change from a quiet resort community to a bustling year-round town.

    "It's progress," Conover said with a shrug. "I don't like progress."

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