Behind the scenes: Last minute on the OCNJ boardwalk before Memorial Day Weekend

 Dan Pitcherello of Somers Point, New Jersey, is a man on a mission.

On a weekday afternoon in the runup to Memorial Day weekend, he’s installing the front lights on a boardwalk business in Ocean City, N.J. Inside, a crew continues to work on the interior, but he says they’ll be out of there by Friday morning so the business can open.

All along the boardwalk, in fact, all along the Jersey Shore, similar scenes played out all week, and merchants painted, cleaned, stocked and spruced to be ready for the big weekend, which many see as the launch of summer at the shore.

“On Memorial Day weekend, you know everyone is open,” said Holly Kisby, the general manager at Shriver’s Salt Water Taffy and Fudge at Ninth Street and the boardwalk. Some stores , like Shrivers, remain open all year, while others may decide to open on spring weekends or on a sunny day. But after this weekend, almost every business will be open every day.

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Kisby, and many others, see Memorial Day weekend as an indicator of what sort of summer to expect. She’s been on the boardwalk for 24 years, and the landmark salt water taffy shop has been around far longer. It opened in 1898.

She’s expecting a good weekend, and a good summer. Although most of May has been rainy, April saw some hot and sunny days, which meant a packed boardwalk. Kisby believes visitors will be down this weekend no matter what the weather. “We just try to prepare as best we can and hope for the best,” she said.

Hopes for a banner year

“I think it’s going to be a great summer,” said Brent Burke, the manager of Sunglass Menagerie, which just opened a new, larger store in the 900 block of the ‘walk, near Shrivers. He pointed to another neighbor, Manco and Manco Pizza, where work is finishing up on a new flagship location in what used to be one of three movie theaters on the boardwalk. The huge new pizza shop is set to include a retail area and expanded seating. The only cloud hanging over the business: owner Charles Bangle was sentenced to 15 months in prison for tax evasion in a Camden court last February. In fact, U.S. District Judge Robert Kulger brought up the shop expansion, questioning his spending of millions there when he has not yet paid off his taxes. Bangle is to report to serve his time in September.

Burke believes the new pizzeria will be a big draw, as will a huge new roller coaster at Playland amusement park called Gale Force, which was being tested that afternoon. The sunglass store, owned by Bryan Allegretto, is also in the midst of a big expansion, he said, going from 6 stores to 12 along the length of the Jersey shore.

He also cited the city’s efforts to bring families to Ocean City, including concerts and regular events throughout the season.

Ocean plunge

Ocean City has a reputation for wacky events, most of which were launched by longtime PR director Mark Soifer. That includes the business person’s plunge, set for noon Friday next to the Music Pier at Moorlyn Terrace. The city has for years held an event to ceremonially “unlock” the ocean, but for added silliness, several local businesspeople and others don suits and ties to march into the water, which is about 50 degrees right now.

Soifer retired at the end of 2016, but the city is keeping that and other traditions going.

Far more serious is the annual Memorial Day observance, which sees a strong turnout every year to honor those killed in the line of duty from every branch of the American armed services. Ocean City local Anthony Walsh, an Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot who flew 90 missions in Afghanistan, will be the keynote speaker starting 11 a.m. Monday at Memorial Park, on Wesley Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Street. If the weather is bad, the service will move to the nearby Ocean City Tabernacle.

Lifeguards hit the stands this weekend at several blocks, with more locations to be added as the summer progresses.

Also planned for the weekend are shows by the Ocean City Pops Orchestra Friday evening and KC and the Sunshine Band Sunday, both at the Music Pier, and the Memorial Beach Challenge on Saturday morning, in which athletes challenge a 2.5-mile obstacle course to benefit a veterans organization. Call 856-905-0583 or see for details, and call 609-399-6111 for details on the concerts and other city events.

Weather is king

Almost every business person points to the weather as the make-or-break factor for the Jersey shore. Not the Consumer Price Index, not the latest numbers from Nasdaq, just whether or not the sun shines. Jamie Ford, the owner of Barefoot Trading Company, clothing, jewelry and gift shop at 1070 Boardwalk, says in the summer, things almost always even out, and a merchant can make up for a rainy weekend. Spring and fall are a different story, though.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the weather in the shoulder season,” he said. A few rainy weekends in the spring can make a huge difference to the bottom line. After Memorial Day, however, a merchant can count on making it up a weekend washout. “It really does even out. The town is very consistent.”

This year, he said, spring was good. May wasn’t what he would have liked, and the week before Memorial Day saw lots of gray skies and rain, but April was good enough to make up for that.

Ford’s business started out with a trip to Guatemala, buying sweaters and shirts to sell back home. He later headed farther afield, with multiple trips to Bali in Indonesia to find items for the shop, which has been open more than 20 years. Lately, he’s been focused on Thailand. He said he loves the designs there.

“The customer needs to be energized by some new products. But so do I,” he said.

Like others on the Boardwalk, Ford was in his shop this week, getting things organized while a few costumers stopped in for a look. “I think it’s going to be a good weekend,” he said.

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