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Shore rebound: All a-board

But some walks could be polymer.

The boardwalk and the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights lie in ruins after Hurricane Sandy. The mayor says rebuilding the boardwalk is urgent.
The boardwalk and the Casino Pier in Seaside Heights lie in ruins after Hurricane Sandy. The mayor says rebuilding the boardwalk is urgent.Read more

SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. - They're the places where generations of families savored fast-melting ice cream cones and chowed down on garlicky slices of pizza, where teens scoped out potential dates, where a tipsy Snooki tottered unsteadily, and under which the Drifters sang about falling in love.

For all their nostalgia, boardwalks are still a major economic engine for Shore communities. Tourists and residents alike spend their money on food and drinks there, or on games of skee ball or balloon darts to win a stuffed animal. So, weeks after Sandy, towns are racing to rebuild their boardwalks by May, for reasons both sentimental and financial.

They will need the tourism money this summer more than ever as they try to rebuild homes and infrastructure. The expensive efforts are forcing decisions not only about how much to spend, but also about whether to rebuild with environmentally sensitive wood or more durable materials.

The destruction in Seaside Heights has become emblematic of the storm because of a roller coaster that plunged into the ocean. Yet Sandy also destroyed the boardwalk, where families ate belly-busting foods like zeppoles - fried dough laden with powdered sugar - and where Snooki and company partied their way through the MTV reality show Jersey Shore.

Mayor Bill Akers said 75 percent of his town's budget comes from tourism, with the remaining 25 percent raised from local taxpayers.

"You can see how important it is for us to get the boardwalk back up and running, and to make sure we have a summer season," he said. "It's something we have to get done."

Seaside Heights, like several other Shore towns, is soliciting bids to rebuild its boardwalk; Akers estimated it will take from $10 million to $12 million. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse towns for 75 percent of those costs, but local governments first must front all of the money themselves, forcing many to borrow in the short or long term.

Terri Bissell moved to Seaside Heights 15 years ago after visiting it each summer for decades. Her parents started vacationing there 70 years ago.

"It was like heaven, coming down here to the boardwalk," she said. "It was our own little piece of heaven."

To the north, Belmar has approved the largest boardwalk-rebuilding project so far in the aftermath of the storm, committing $20 million to rebuild its 1.3-mile boardwalk and haul away the remnants of the old one. It is also considering erecting a steel seawall to be buried under sand dunes to help protect the boardwalk and homes and businesses.

"The beach and the boardwalk go together," Mayor Matthew Doherty said. "It's who we are. It's part of our identity."

Yet identity goes only so far in Shore towns' calculus. Money is a bigger factor.

"If there's no boardwalk, people aren't going to come this summer," Doherty said. "They'll go somewhere else, and if they like it there, they won't be back here. We want to be the first in the race to get things started for the summer."

A 20-foot chunk of boardwalk is all that remains in Belmar - for one reason. It was an experimental section, bolted to underpinnings with the same hurricane tie-down straps that many home builders use to bind homes to their foundations. The entire new Belmar boardwalk will be built this way, Doherty said.

Other Shore towns, including Sea Girt, Asbury Park, and Point Pleasant Beach, are moving forward with boardwalk rebuilding plans. Spring Lake has to rebuild its boardwalk little more than a year after Tropical Storm Irene wrecked half of the old one.

The destruction of late October's Hurricane Sandy will likely result in some changes along the shoreline, with more wooden walkways giving way to concrete or synthetic materials. "Under the Polymerwalk" might not have the same ring to it as the Drifters' 1960s hit "Under the Boardwalk," but in some places there will no longer be boards in the boardwalk.

Doherty, the Belmar mayor, is confident his boardwalk will be replaced before Memorial Day brings its own set of worries.

"If we rebuild this boardwalk, we'll have plenty of tourists," he said. "And then people will be complaining about parking."