Developer hopes to combine tourism with history in Burlington Island project

Four hundred acres sit dormant in the middle of the Delaware River between Burlington City and Bristol, Pa. But an ambitious proposal by Woolman Community Development of Mount Holly hopes to overcome the natural obstacles of island life and transform Burlington Island into a world-class travel destination.

Burlington Island’s history includes thousands of years of Lenape Indian villages, a century of European pilgrim settlements, and a comparatively short-lived amusement park in the early 20th century. Woolman CEO and President Karen Robbins said that the non-profit plans to “recreate all the life lived and lessons learned in the 17th century” when the island was inhabited by Native Americans and European settlers.

Burlington Island was an “active place” in the 17th century, Robbins said. Its history includes “lots of stories of peace, but also conflict.” In 1890, it became the site of the first archeological dig in New Jersey and nearly 200 of the artifacts recovered are now displayed in the Peabody Museum at Yale University.

Woolman plans to blend the natural beauty of the island with its fascinating history to create an “exotic” destination that will appeal to a broad audience, from daytripping families to European travelers, Robbins said.

Two phases of development

The vision includes at least two phases of development. Phase one, which Robbins estimates will be in place for the summer of 2013, would include a campground, waterpark and ropes course, a Native American marketplace where people could purchase true American Indian goods year-round, and possibly recreational scuba diving in the lake. A Lenapi village will instruct visitors on Native American arts such as cooking, jewelry- and basket-making, drums, and clothing.

Phase two includes an amphitheater on the island and establishes a settlers’ village as well as a Native American heritage center. Robbins said that the settlers’ village may include some lodging for visitors who want to immerse themselves in 17th century life. The heritage center will be a place where Native Americans from around the world could come and “celebrate their heritage,” like an Ellis Island for Native Americans, Robbins said. They plan to commission a sculpture representing each of the major U.S. tribes so that Native American visitors could find and sign the sculpture for their respective tribe.

Other plans include an archeological museum with sponsored digs and a marina and boat building school.

Robbins said that while she believes the island will be popular with Americans, Woolman also plans to market the island to Europe and other continents as a place that foreigners can come and learn about America and its heritage, especially considering its proximity to Philadelphia.

There are a few major hurdles to Woolman’s plan, however. Right now, Woolman is in the final stages of negotiating a lease for the use of the island, so “everything is very preliminary,” Robbins said, although she believes that once the lease is in place with the Island Managers for the northern half of the island, Burlington City will realize that it is “to the state’s and region’s advantage” to follow through with Woolman’s design.

Burlington City Mayor James Fazzone is “not so sure” that the Board of Island Managers has as much control over the island as thought. The previous mayor conducted a title search for the island but a title was not found, he said.

Additionally, Burlington City has not received any “financials” from the developer. The “closest thing to a legitimate proposal” that Fazzone has seen was a request to approve camping on the island this summer.

The camping proposal was denied because it brought to light another major problem to any type of development on the island. Currently, there is no way to get any emergency personnel or equipment of any kind onto the island in a timely fashion, said Fazzone. There is no water or sewer infrastructure in place to cope with emergencies. “I have to be responsible,” and until he would feel comfortable sending his own family to camp on the island, Fazzone says he will not approve any similar requests.

But Woolman hopes to turn obstacles to their plan into advantages. Limited electricity is available on the island so solar panels will be installed. The construction technology that they will use will mitigate many of the potential environmental concerns that might arise otherwise. Also, because they will not be making any major changes to the island’s environment, Robbins expects that Woolman will not be subject to the environmental protests that take place anytime a project is suggested along the Delaware River.

Other concerns turned advantages are “natural obstacles.” There is not a bridge to the island so Woolman will “make it really fun to travel by boat” to and from the island.

“The area is ripe for tourist development and there is so much history on the mainland and the island,” Robbins said. “It is the type of beautiful place people will travel miles and miles for… and we want to preserve it.”

Because the island is situated between two “very urban areas,” Robbins said it will generate economic development for Burlington and Bristol, Pa. Funding for the project will come from a combination of nonprofit funding for the historical aspects and for profit ventures such as the marketplace. “We’re going to do our best to make it financially self-sustaining,” Robbins said.

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