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Cape May mayor wants 'Coast Guard Community' designation for town

CAPE MAY — Mayor Ed Mahaney remembers when the U.S. Coast Guard recruit training center almost left town. He doesn’t want that possibility to emerge again.

So Mahaney is pushing for a congressional declaration of Cape May as an official Coast Guard Community.

“It could help keep them here,” Mahaney said.

The Coast Guard certainly felt welcome here in 1998, when 700 residents showed up for a town meeting urging the Coast Guard to stay when it was considering relocating. There also had been efforts to move the Coast Guard’s only boot camp for enlisted personnel in 1982 and 1995. The issue comes up every so often, usually when the Coast Guard faces budget cuts and wants to consolidate bases.

Designating the town as a Coast Guard Community, which has been issued for 14 other places in the country that host Coast Guard facilities or have special significance to the service, may help. It would certainly make the Coast Guard feel welcome.

Such proclamations are usually given to communities that go out of the way to help the Coast Guard. Under 1998 federal legislation, a city or county can apply to become a Coast Guard community. The decision is made by the Coast Guard commandant with congressional review.

“It’s not what the Coast Guard has done for the community. It’s how much the community has done for the Coast Guard,” said Chief Warrant Officer Donnie Brzuska, who handles public affairs at Coast Guard Training Center Cape May.

The community submits an application outlining what it does for the Coast Guard.

“The information is there. You have to get it all together and tell the story, convincingly and succinctly,” said Capt. Todd Prestidge, the commanding officer of the base.

Mayor Mahaney notes that 2,000 people either serve at the base or are civilian employees. Many are involved with the town. Coasties, as they are known, serve on the local school board that oversees a school with more than half the students coming from the base. The base is the largest single employer in town. Coast Guard children are on the Cape May Waves swim team. The Coast Guard marches in local parades and shows up every year to help clean up the shores of Cape May Harbor.

“They’re a large part of our population and economy. We wouldn’t have a school without them. They are involved in social, recreational and civic activity. They shop in our stores, their children play on our teams, and their family members are employees,” Mahaney said.

Coast Guard graduations, held almost every week, annually bring an estimated 40,000 visitors who stay in local hotels, dine in restaurants and shop. Coasties on liberty on Saturdays shop in local stores and often travel up to Rio Grande, Middle Township, to that shopping district. Coast Guard uniforms are made at a facility in Woodbine.

The impact of the Coast Guard presences is felt beyond city limits, and Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey has gotten involved with the application to see if the entire county can become a Coast Guard Community.

“Clearly, it’s a relationship that’s regional,” Morey said. “We wrote all the mayors. The Cape May County Chamber of Commerce is involved as well, writing to business people and asking for an inventory of what they do for the Coast Guard.”

The Coast Guard Community application will include Operation Fireside, an effort by the American Red Cross in Cape May Court House to place recruits in local homes for a Thanksgiving and Christmas meal. It will include the discounts offered at Cape May hotels for families of recruits coming to boot camp graduations.

It will include the scholarships offered to Coast Guard children at summer programs at The Nature Center of Cape May. It will include a program to allow Coasties to use the Stone Harbor beaches. It will include Cape May providing police and EMT services to base housing on the east side of town. These are just a few examples.

Brzuska said there are some things that will be harder to get in the application package but are significant.

“It’s the love and support for the Coast Guard deeply ingrained in this community. You see it every day. It’s the free cup of coffee, the person who stops you and thanks you for your service, and the thunderous applause as we march in the Christmas parade. The city has to demonstrate that. It’s not really about dollars. It’s about love of the Coast Guard,” Brzuska said.

It could be argued that the Coast Guard has been a presence here almost since the county’s birth. The U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, a predecessor agency of the Coast Guard, assigned the two-masted cutter General Greene to patrol the Delaware Bay in 1791.

The modern Coast Guard emerged in 1915, and since then, Cape May has hosted what was once the largest Coast Guard air base and now hosts the nation’s only recruit training center. The air base, which moved to Egg Harbor Township in 1998, was sited here in 1926 initially with three amphibious biplanes.

Coast Guard training began at the base in 1948. The Coast Guard also constructed a Loran navigation station across Cape May Inlet in Lower Township in 1947. Other Coast Guard facilities, including small boat stations and lighthouses, are also part of the Coast Guard presence in the county.

Mahaney and Morey are chairing a committee that expects to present an application to Capt. Prestidge around Labor Day. Mahaney is hoping the designation comes by Memorial Day.

There is another benefit to the distinction.

Becoming a Coast Guard Community can help with marketing and public relations. The first city to get the designation, Grand Haven, Mich., advertises itself as “Coast Guard City USA.” Brzuska said it creates “branding opportunities” that can help draw Coast Guard families for vacations and put Cape May on their radar screen when they seek a place to retire.

Morey sees it as much more than a public relations move. He wants people to link Cape May County and the Coast Guard the way they link Annapolis with the U.S. Navy. He wants to look into putting a national Coast Guard museum here.

“This is not PR. This is a move of substance. It’s important culturally, socially and economically. I think we will benefit from it, and it’s the right thing to do,” Morey said.

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