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For too many years, the "wild" in Wildwood gave rise to a reputation as a place to party hard, where teenagers went on drunken binges to celebrate their release from high school.
Like most reputations, this one came with more than a few kernels of truth, enough to send too much of the traditional family trade to Sea Isle City, Ocean City and other coastal resorts.
With a decline in tourism, motel owners passed on upgrading their properties. Others removed the ostentatious signage and structures that defined the island's buildings in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s.
Few developers invested in the three coastal communities sharing the island: North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest. (West Wildwood is not a factor in the tourist trade.)
Of late, however, the good seems to outweigh the bad:
A campaign against drunkenness has paid off in turning opinions around.
A new convention center opens next year overlooking the Wildwood beach.
Upscale restaurants have moved into Wildwood and North Wildwood, and an ambitious entertainment district has gone beyond the wishful-thinking phase.
The first efforts to turn fortunes around came with the formation of the Greater Wildwood Improvement and Tourism Development Authority in 1993.
Created by the three beachfront towns, the authority markets the island as a total vacation destination. It is funded by a 2 percent tax on rooms, meals and admissions to most attractions.
"The Wildwoods now look at themselves as one destination," said John Siciliano, executive director of the authority.
Then came the college students from three prestigious architecture schools who saw in the Wildwoods a treasure trove of Americana, and the key to a renaissance.
Since the mid-1990s, students and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Kent State have conducted exhaustive research into the unusual architecture of the motels throughout the island.
The designs, characterized by plastic palm trees, curved railings, outlandish signage and a preponderance of neon, were christened "doo-wop," a variation on the street corner harmony rock 'n' roll prevalent when these places were built.
The students convinced Wildwoods officials the collection of architectural gems could do for their island what the Victorian bed and breakfasts did for Cape May.
"In the last ten years, we've cultivated our uniqueness. We're pretty much one of a kind," said Jack Morey, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Morey Organization, one of the few companies that continued to invest through the bad times.
Morey also presides over the Doo Wop Preservation League, a combination museum and think tank on everything doo-wop situated in the heart of Wildwood's Pacific Avenue downtown.
The architecture students developed a slew of recommendations on how to capitalize on the doo-wop fascination, a laundry list of ideas which revolved around fun, neon and an attitude of the gaudier, the better.
"Neon was the hallmark here 30 to 40 years ago. Then people quit using it. Now they're back to spending money on it," said Mayor Duane Sloan.
A number of motels have retrofitted or accentuated the look.
Last year, Morey built the Starlux Motel in the doo-wop style.
Maureen and Steve Horn incorporated neon when they opened Maureen, an upscale bistro a block off the Wildwood boardwalk. A large neon martini glass graces the side of the building.
Wildwood has used the doo-wop theme as a a a leverage tool in granting variances.
Wawa will go doo-wop with its new superstore on Rio Grande Avenue. The same holds true for a new Subway and a Pizza Hut.
"These are minor changes, but they all add up," Sloan said.
What they add up to is new development after years of stagnation.
Crest Savings Bank moved its headquarters to Pacific Avenue. The long-dormant Wildwood Yacht Basin underwent a major overhaul into Schooner Island Marina. Claude's, a landmark French cafe, saw North Wildwood as more promising than remaining in Stone Harbor.
The Horns, husband and wife restaurateurs known for their posh eateries in Philadelphia, Cape May and Longboat Key, Fla., defied odds when they selected Wildwood last year.
"For a whole year before, people kept asking us, `why Wildwood?'" Maureen said. "People said we were crazy."
Those same people couldn't wait for Maureen to reopen this summer. More than half of its customers last year came from the tony vacation towns of Avalon and Stone Harbor.
Real estate sales are on the rise throughout the island, as are construction permits.
North Wildwood went from 11 building permits in 1998 to 58 the following year and 70 last year. Wildwood Crest jumped from seven to 13 to 35 permits. Wildwood issued 13 building permits last year, compared to just one in both 1998 and 1999.
Ottens Harbor, a quaint man-made finger of water in the Wildwood back bays, is poised for waterfront residential development as part of the second-home market.
"It took a decade to create the foundation for this," Morey said. "Now we're seeing things coming out of the ground."
Word has spread beyond South Jersey.
American Airlines profiled the city in its in-flight magazine this year. And the magazine Marie Claire flew in models from Italy for a photo shoot as part of a story on architecture for a fall issue.
Wildwood's more immediate future rests with the convention center and the entertainment district.
The center, while not expected to convert the island into a year-round destination, will expand the season.
Many motel owners plan renovations and even additions in anticipation of increased business, said John Pantalone, mayor of Wildwood Crest.
The entertainment district consists of four elements within the center of Wildwood.
A California-style beach park.
The city is in in preliminary discussions with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to help fund $3.4 million for bike and inline skate paths, volleyball courts, softball fields and an ecosystem to make it environmentally friendly.
The park needs approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection, but Sloan doesn't see hurdles.
Pacific Avenue redevelopment.
A $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is earmarked to convert Pacific Avenue to two-way vehicle traffic for the first time since 1987. The conversion is considered the launch of a hoped- for rebirth of the street.
If a second $1 million from HUD falls through, the city has other funding options to complete the change, said Kim Schalek, assistant vice president of Pathways, the Mount Laurel consulting firm working with the resort to secure grants.
In addition to the influx of cars, the street will play off the doo-wop theme with signs, streetscaping, banners and lighting, and possibly an increase in new businesses to create something similar to Philadelphia's South Street.
A physical and spiritual link between the boardwalk and Pacific Avenue along Cedar Avenue.
The connector will feature colored concrete, neon lighting, and an eclectic mix of shops - what Sloan describes as a smaller version of Universal Studios CityWalk. A bill in Trenton would appropriate $2 million for the construction of the connector.
Also planned: a parking garage, a 200-room hotel and a six- to 10-screen multiplex theater. The city is willing to work with developers to offer incentives, such as tax abatements and free land, Sloan said.
Rio Grande Avenue entranceway, from New Jersey to Ocean avenues.
The resort will receive $1.3 million in federal funds, and the state will toss in another $400,000 for streetscape improvements, themed signage and more, also tapping doo- wop. "It will be bright and in neon, with a Disneyesque feel to it," Schalek said.
While these plans occur within Wildwood, "If Wildwood improves, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood benefit,'' Pantalone said.
"I'm seeing more synergy between the three communities than I have before," Morey noted. "We're one very small island with one very big opportunity."