What the Wildwoods can learn from a 70-year-old grudge

    In a 2011 Philadelphia Daily News article, Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. suggested that Wildwood could start charging for beach access.

    His logic seems sound: Maintaining a beach is expensive, costing the shore town about $1.5 million a year.

    Nearly every other New Jersey beach town requires visitors to buy beach tags to use the beach in the summer. These fees put the cost of maintenance on tourists instead property owners.

    You’d have thought the man threatened to kill all the puppies and kittens in New Jersey. Loyalists to the Wildwoods screamed that they’d never come back if they had to pay to use the beach.

    Will they follow up on their threat should the Wildwoods’ beaches no longer be free? A clue could be found in a 70-year-old mistake made by the Red Cross.

    During World War II, the Red Cross set up comfort stations for soldiers stationed overseas and offered free coffee and doughtnuts to American servicemen. In 1942, at the direction of the U.S. Secretary of War, the Red Cross started to charge for the doughnuts.

    The Red Cross has felt the ire of veterans ever since.

    NPR’s team Planet Money looked into this on a recent podcast. They asked veterans — 70 years later — what they thought about the Red Cross. The reactions were not positive. When asked why, every single one brought up the doughnuts. 

    Charging for something that was once free is called a categorical change. It’s different than just raising prices. It’s putting a monetary value on something that was a given before.

    The reaction to that change is much more severe when a relationship — real or perceived — exists between the two parties. The Wildwoods built a large chunk of their marketing and advertising campaigns on the fact that they have free beaches. They appealed to families’ frugal sides, especially during the Great Recession: We know times are tough. We’ll help you out by making the beach free.

    It’s no wonder that patrons feel that the Wildwoods would be pulling the rug out from under them if they started to charge for the thing that got them there.

    Plus, the Wildwoods do have another option to lower property taxes: merge. Instead of having five separate towns, including Diamond Beach and West Wildwood, on the five-mile island, become one municipality and share fire, police, school and administrative costs. Instead of having four mayors, have one. Why does West Wildwood, which is .25 square miles, need its own fire department? I love the town, but if governments in the Wildwoods are looking for ways to cut costs, become one town is a big one.

    Of course, some will say that I just don’t “get” the area, that each one has its own identity and can’t be merged with its neighbor. That’s rubbish. Change is hard, but it can be done. This isn’t just a Wildwoods, problem though. It’s a New Jersey problem (we have 590 school districts — the entire state of Maryland has 24).

    I keep fearing that at some point the towns will face the option of either merging or charging for the beach to keep property taxes down. The beach tags don’t seem like such a logical choice anymore.

    Though there is a glimmer of good news: Wildwood just released a 2012 municipal budget that included no layoffs and no local purpose tax increase. 

    For now, the free beaches are safe. But officials of the Wildwoods should remember the Red Cross doughnut story. Otherwise, 70 years from now, they could still be feeling the effects of charging for what was once free.

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