LAVALLETTE, N.J. - Yes, they were here to show off the rebuilt boardwalk in this picturesque seaside town, with its touching buy-a-board messages such as "This too shall pass" etched into the compressed pine planks.

But as much as they were peddling the "Jersey Shore is open" message on this foggy morning, neither Mayor Walter "Wally" LaCicero nor Gov. Christie tried to obscure some tough realities facing the Shore as it ushers in its first summer post-Sandy.

Christie acknowledged that the fate of the blue-collar summer-home owner - a demographic that gives the Shore so much of its character - is particularly at risk since the Oct. 29 storm.

"Listen, part of the reason I fought as hard for the federal aid to be gotten is to try to do the best we can to not change the character of the Shore in terms of the folks who are here," he said.

But that aid, for which year-round residents can apply beginning Friday, for up to $150,000 in grants for rebuilding and elevating houses, is not available to second-home owners, he acknowledged.

Christie said he tried to make the case to President Obama and Congress that federal money should be available to second-home owners, many of whom are not wealthy. But he lost.

"For those folks, that's a big problem," he said. "But there's nothing I can do about that. The best I can do is ask and fight for it. I tried."

The governor described many of those second-home owners as middle class, with Shore homes passed down through families that rent out for most of the summer, "but then are able to have it for themselves for a couple of weeks."

He said he hoped the combination of federal, state, insurance, and private dollars would allow most people to stay and rebuild rather than sell.

"There are going to be some people who conclude that they have to sell," he said. "I understand that. But I don't think we're going to see the widespread selling of homes across the Shore because people don't have the money to rebuild."

LaCicero, however, said the storm had accelerated a shift to a wealthier summer demographic. "It's going to definitely change the community," he said. "It's been undergoing an evolution anyway."

Christie said not every person's issues could be solved by government intervention. "People all come into this situation differently situated - how much debt do they have, what's their own personal financial situation. We can't be there to fix every problem, but we're going to be there to try to deal with most of them."

Lavallette, with a dune system, fared better than its neighbors along Route 35, such as Ortley Beach, which still shows the scars of devastation and where beaches will not all be open this summer.

Federal dollars in Ortley are being directed at simply removing the debris of destroyed houses. The ruins of 20 were cleared last week, leaving a poignant hand-painted sign: "Welcome to what's left of Ortley Beach."

During a four-block walk along Lavallette's new boardwalk, LaCicero told Christie that removing those reminders of Sandy would encourage people to come back.

"People are less discouraged when driving through," he said.

"What are you finding so far?" the governor asked.

The mayor did not sugarcoat: Although his town's business district is 100 percent occupied, property values are way down. Rentals are off 25 percent because brokers will not sign contracts on any houses they cannot guarantee will be fully repaired by summer. About half of the year-rounders are back home.

"Rentals are an issue right now," LaCicero said.

"Given where we were in November, to think we're at 75 percent occupancy is amazing," Christie said.

According to a AAA poll released Monday, 79 percent of Philadelphia-area and New Jersey residents say the storm did not change their summer travel plans. Some said they might spend less time at the Shore this year or visit a different town if their usual destination is unavailable.

Others in the telephone survey of 600 New Jerseyans and 200 from the Philadelphia area said they planned to make extra efforts to patronize New Jersey businesses to help revive the local economy.

The Christie family plans to stay at the governor's Shore house at Island Beach State Park this weekend and travel from Wildwood to Keansburg to promote tourism.

At the official boardwalk dedication before an enthusiastic and grateful crowd of Lavallette locals and schoolchildren, Christie stressed that the progress was encouraging, if not all-encompassing. He said businesses could apply for grants of up to $50,000 by calling 1-855-SANDYBZ. "We'll have every boardwalk open for Memorial Day," he said. "If I had predicted that in November, we all would have wondered if that would have been possible."

"There's never going to be enough money to repair all the damage," he said. "The rental market is softer than it was last year. But of course it is. Is there anybody here who didn't think it would be?

"We're somewhere in between perfect and bad. So let's move our way toward perfect."


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