Is there ever a better time to take a quick dip in the Atlantic Ocean than February? While most of us start to shiver just thinking about the idea, Jimmy Bennett and Irene Jameson thought it was a brilliant idea. They took their idea to the Mayor of Sea Isle City and presented it as a way to boost offseason tourism to the island and the local area in general. In 1995, the Polar Bear Plunge was born and Sea Isle City has not looked back since!
Irene Jameson is a local legend on the island and everyone knows who she is. In her younger years, Irene was a schoolteacher in Philadelphia and after moving to Sea Isle City, Irene took over the duties as a public relations officer for the city. After establishing the Polar Bear Plunge with Mr. Bennett, she was crowned the Polar Bear Plunge Queen on numerous occasions and has even published a book, “Memoirs of a Polar Bear Queen,” that is available for sale every year at the event.
Jimmy Bennett is one of the more influential business owners in Sea Isle City. Jimmy owns several food and beverage establishments on the island and seems to have the golden touch, as just about everything he is involved with becomes successful. It goes without saying that the event itself would have never become what it is today without his ongoing vigilance and effort. What was once considered a “gimmick” event by some has turned into something families plan their winter vacation around and that surrounding communities strive to duplicate.
In addition to the influence of Jimmy and Irene, long-time Mayor Leonard Desiderio has had a major impact on the success of this event. After all, if the local government were not behind such an event, it would have no chance whatsoever of getting off the ground. As both the Mayor and a local business owner, he had a dual interest in the event becoming a success and has done everything in his power to ensure that it receives the full support of the city. His efforts have helped create an event that has become the blueprint for other shore municipalities that desire to draw offseason tourists to their community.
Having lived on the island for three years now and seeing the event first hand, I started to wonder how it came about, what the driving force behind its success was, what it meant to the overall economy of the island, and what the future held for the Plunge. It is for this reason that I asked for and was granted a personal sit-down with the Mayor and Jimmy Bennett to discuss the event.
Gerald McConway: [to Jimmy Bennett] It is my understanding that you were the one who actually started the event with Irene Jameson. What gave you the idea that people jumping into the ocean in the dead of winter would draw people to a summer resort in middle of February?
Jimmy Bennett: At the time, Irene and I were members of the Tourism Commission, and part of our charge at the time was to generate more tourism-like activities during the offseason. We saw that Delaware was very successful with its Plunge and as business owners and residents, we knew there was some interest in having an event such as this in Sea Isle City during President’s Weekend. We came up with the Polar Bear theme. The first year, we had about 25 participants and about 200 viewers.
GMcC: After that first year, what would you consider the landmark years in regard to the growth of the event?
JB: The Polar Bear Plunge grew immediately, but not necessarily by leaps and bounds at first. As we got into the late 1990s and early 2000s, we started to see a noticeable difference in attendance and as Sea Isle City has become more of a tourist destination, the attendance has continued to grow. In recent years, the event has grown far beyond our original expectations.
GMcC: Does the Plunge itself benefit any charities?
JB: The Plunge has benefitted Sea Isle City tourism events in the past, such as our fireworks displays. As we have moved forward, funds have helped to support the Sea Isle City Revitalization Committee and Chamber of Commerce. Parts of the funds were also used to fund the Sea Isle City Trolley Program.
GMcC: From a tourist perspective, how has the feedback been regarding the event over the years?
JB: The feedback we have received has been very positive all the way around. The business owners have offered feedback to the local Chamber of Commerce that has been very positive in regard to the influx of business they receive directly related to the event. The local residents tell us how their families come back to Sea Isle City that weekend to enjoy their “second” home. It gives people who generally rent out their properties a chance to use and enjoy their home.
Mayor Desiderio: The Polar Bear Plunge event is like a July weekend in the middle of February. As you know, for a shore town, the slower months are November, December, January, and February. This is a breath of fresh air to the business community and Sea Isle City as a whole during February. We have families who plan their events around the Plunge. For example, a couple of years ago[February 2010] we had a major storm and contemplated cancelling the event, but we then realized how many people had made plans, rented homes, and changed their social plans to attend this event.
That being the case, we took all necessary measures to ensure that this event went off without a hitch. We plowed all the relevant streets, the boardwalk, and other areas leading up to the beach where the Plunge was going to take place. This event is that much of a shot in the arm and a boost to the local economy that regardless of the weather, we need to make sure that it takes place as scheduled. It may be the one event where weather simply does not matter. As a matter of fact, some people feel as though the worse the weather, the better it is for the event!
GMcC: How much do you think this event has helped to influence the tourism business for the island and helped local businesses?
MD: I am really glad you touched on this! The Polar Bear Plunge attracts people of all ages, and families represent the majority of visitors that weekend. You will see everyone from grandparents to grandchildren viewing and participating in the Plunge. Cars come into town on Thursday evening and they remain in town through Monday and Tuesday due to the holiday.
We no longer call it President’s Day Weekend in Sea Isle City; it is advertised as Polar Bear Weekend. You have restaurants and businesses that have been closed for months that only open their doors because of this event. Take a walk down Landis Avenue and you will see restaurants with huge signs in the window advertising that they are open for Polar Bear Weekend.
Thanks to Jim, as he and Irene Jameson started the event, this event has grown so our town comes to life again in the middle of the winter. You will see that after this [Polar Bear Plunge] weekend, some businesses will actually remain open, at least for weekends, through the end of the summer. Others will reopen as soon as spring arrives in March. They use this weekend as a launch to start their season.
GMcC: With this event becoming so successful, do you think it will serve as an example or model for the introduction of other events to help boost offseason business?
MD: We are always looking for shoulder season events. The Tourism Commission, of which Jim is now the Chairman, has moved these types of events, such as the Irish Festival and the Italian Festival, to offseason weekends. We realize that if we have these special events during off weekends, people will come down and use their homes.
Next Thanksgiving, for example, we are going to do the annual tree lighting ceremony at the entertainment center. The Chamber of Commerce is putting together a nice group of surprises to make this event truly special. We are planning more of these types of events on off weekends. With over 70 percent of our residents not using their home year round, we want events that will draw them back into town. We want events that are family oriented, not events where they have to worry about a bad element or not being able to leave their homes. All of the events we are developing are family oriented in nature.
GMcC: We touched on this a bit earlier, but to go more in-depth, economically speaking, what kind of a boost does this event give to the city?
MD: It is a huge boost to the local economy. Many businesses close as soon as September ends. Some businesses remain open, including mine, but we run skeleton hours and staff. When this weekend hits, every business in town opens with a full staff. Each business has to bring in extra people and make arrangements for its staff to be here to work over Plunge weekend. This is income, for both the businesses and work force, that would not normally be here.
This is such a huge event that other municipalities have inquired about it and want to do their own events modeled after this weekend. Cape May County is becoming the place you plan to go for President’s Weekend instead of Disney [laughing].
GMcC: How would you compare Plunge weekend with our more popular summer holiday weekends?
MD: I would say it is like a good July weekend, a good in season weekend. It is not yet touching our July 4th weekend, but that weekend also depends on the weather and the day of the week, whereas weather never hurts this event. Polar Bear participants want the weather to be bad!
GMcC: We talked about the types of events the city is seeking to have in the future to draw in more offseason business. Do you see other business owners doing what Jimmy has done with this event and Mike Monichetti from Mike’s Seafood has done with the Autism Walk to, in essence, take the bull by the horns and develop themed weekends to bring in tourists?
MD: They already are! We have the cooperation of the entire business community. Business owners are constantly bringing us new ideas.
JB: We all belong to the Sea Isle City Revitalization Committee, which is more of a business think tank than anything else. Everyone gets involved in these events from soup to nuts.
MD: We encourage everyone to become involved in the development of these events. An example of this is that one of our business owners on Fish Alley came to us with the idea of developing a seafood festival. We worked together to make it a success and will continue to do so. We look forward to these types of events. If we could come up with a special event 40 weeks of the year, we would try it. However, the one challenge is the weather. The Polar Bear Plunge is the only event where it just does not matter. The success of anything else depends on the type of weather we are having that weekend.
GMcC: What is the city doing and what can it do in the future to draw in more family-oriented tourists?
MD: I think we have to make more use of our entertainment center. One of the events that the Chamber and Revitalization Committee put together this past year was the Gala. It was held in September at Excursion Park (at the entertainment center area) and all of the restaurants had their signature dishes on display. It was incredible. The food was great and the entertainment was spectacular. We had more than 200 people pay $100 per ticket and we expect it to grow even more this year.
Something else we are doing is adding more outdoor free concerts. Last year we held concerts on 12 Saturdays. This year we have upped it to 16 free concerts with bands like The Rockets and the Sensational Soul Cruisers, all high-energy bands that bring out large crowds–and this is all free!
GMcC: In essence, by doing this, you are extending the rental season to 16 weeks. Do you see events such as this giving people more reasons to come down here for vacation?
MD: Well, what we have heard already from realtors is renters are calling and saying, “What weekend is such and such playing because that is the week my family wants to come down.”
We would like to extend what was six nights a week entertainment last year to seven nights every week during our tourist season. We want people to start to take the ride from surrounding communities, from Avalon, from Stone Harbor, from Ocean City, and come to our island and spend some time. Hopefully, they are not only spending money at our businesses and restaurants, but they are also seeing how great our island is and planning their next vacation here.
Sea Isle City is now becoming a destination that people want to come to. Speaking not only as the mayor, but also as a long-time business owner, Sea Isle City is hot! It is a community that you are going to want to come to not only to rent, but also to purchase because we are moving ahead and the reason for this is that we are always working together, meaning the government, business owners, and residents, to make our city more attractive to tourists and as a community as a whole.
Every community has parking challenges during the summer and we are no different. You can find a spot, but it may not be in front of the store or restaurant you are going into. Jimmy is going to touch on a program that has been developed to help alleviate this situation. We are also adding another parking location in about a month that will be ready to go by the 2012 season. It will add another 40 spots to the area.
JB: While the trolley looks great and people love it, it simply cannot keep up with the demand. We have entered into a contract with the Atlantic City Jitney Association. It will run the jitney service for us this summer, seven days a week, from 4pm until 4am. On Sunday, it will run from 9am to 4am. Sea Isle City is one of the few municipalities that have built a brand new church. We now have a massive Catholic Church in the center of town and we want the Jitney service to be available for anyone in town and coming into town who would like to attend one of our masses.
We will be doing a trial run with the new jitney service over Polar Bear Weekend. The group is excited about coming to the island and we want it to be successful. This weekend will provide an idea of how successful this program will be. It will also let our residents and visitors see how convenient it will be for them to get from their home to any part of the city they want to enjoy.
Jitney service will run from 9am until approximately 2am (longer if needed) on Saturday of Polar Bear Weekend. There will be five jitneys starting at 9am and an additional five jitneys will be added at 1pm. One-way fees are $2 until 11pm and $5 after 11pm.
After spending the morning with Mr. Bennett and Mayor Desiderio, it became quite obvious how excited they and the city are about Plunge Weekend. If you have yet to attend the event, make sure you get down here this weekend to see it first-hand. It truly has to be seen to be appreciated.
The Plunge itself will take place on Saturday, February 18, at 2:00pm. Click here to register if you feel like taking a nice dip in the ocean! There are also events on Friday night, including the Prince and Princess and King and Queen contests at LaCosta (7pm Friday night), along with a Post-Plunge party at 2:30pm Saturday, where awards for the Plunge will be given away. In addition, there is the Polar Bear 5K Walk/Run for Autism on Sunday (I have an upcoming interview this week with Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike’s Seafood and founder of this event).
This is also a great time to see all that is new in town. There are numerous new restaurants that opened as recently as 2011 and a completely remodeled Basilico’s Restorante! Located at 27 43rd Street, this is one of my favorite upscale pizzeria style restaurants in town and will be one of the first restaurants we spotlight this season. Start your meal off with a Margherita Pizza and an Antipasto and you will not be sorry!
La Costa (4000 Landis Avenue) will kick off the local entertainment scene in rocking fashion on Friday night, as The Rockets take the stage in the inside lounge at 10pm! The all-day party on Saturday will once again feature The Rockets as well as Split Decision, The Insiders, Exit28, and Karma.
Kix McNutley’s (63rd & Landis Avenue) as well as the newly added SideKix Martini Bar will also be rocking during Plunge weekend. Long-time island favorite, The Chatterband, will be playing both Friday and Saturday nights beginning at 9:30pm and 10pm respectively. In addition, just about every bar in town will be running some type of themed special Friday and Saturday night. This is easily one of the best weekends of the year in Sea Isle City.
As Mayor Desiderio says, “We always have room for one more in Sea Isle!”