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Wild Ride in N.J. Party Town May End With Vote to Close Bars Earlier

As in other beachside party havens, some residents of Wildwood think there's more money - and civility - in family-oriented tourism

Ask Mayor Fred Wager to describe his seaside resort, and it sounds like Xanadu on the Atlantic: the world's longest boardwalk, more rides than Disney, and sandy-white beaches that don't require membership.

"God put those beaches there and we're letting you use them for free," Mr. Wager says.

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But ask most New Jerseyans about Wildwood, and you're more likely to hear about late-night debauchery. While most Garden State bars close at 2 a.m., Wildwood's have long served drinks until 5 a.m., earning the town its reputation as an all-night, beer-guzzling party town for the college crowd.

Now, however, residents are being asked to decide if it's a reputation they can live with or whether it's time to roll back closing time to a more reasonable 3 a.m.

The question has opened an emotional chasm between those in favor of promoting the town as a family-friendly vacation destination versus those who say the early-morning bar scene is an important part of the city's economy.

The soul-searching began after a young man was beaten to death outside a nightclub in February. This prompted the police chief to ask town leaders to put a leash on the bar scene. The three-member City Commission obliged in May by mandating a 3 a.m. closing time.

But some owners of Wildwood's 56 bars and restaurants fought back. They launched a petition drive opposing the shorter hours, gathering three times as many signatures as were necessary. Last month, the commission agreed to let voters decide. A referendum is scheduled for Nov. 4.

City Commissioner Duane Sloane admits that, in a tourist town, bars and restaurants certainly play an important role. "I'm just not convinced we need to have them open all hours of the night," he says. "If you haven't had enough to drink by 3 a.m., you've got a problem."

Common conundrum

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The dilemma resembles that of other vacation spots where an annual convergence of teens or college students on spring or summer break brings riches, but also trouble.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose waterfront bars were once the preeminent spring-break destination, has struggled mightily - and successfully - in recent years to turn its reputation around. By 1985, more than 350,000 college students each year were pouncing on Fort Lauderdale's beaches and bars, and bringing $150 million with them.

But after years of withstanding the crime, violence, and public drunkenness that came with it, city officials decided it was time for a makeover and spent $60 million on an ad campaign that painted Fort Lauderdale as a wholesome family destination. Fort Lauderdale police also started cracking down on underage drinking. And by 1992, only 20,000 college students were visiting for spring break, while tourism revenues soared by $1 billion a year.

Money as well as morals

Proponents of a more wholesome Wildwood hope for a similar turnaround.

"We don't want to be thought of as a party town anymore," Mr. Sloane says. "But it's a matter of economics more than morals."

Wager, the mayor, thinks the vote could go either way. And he says he understands bar owners' concerns. "We're trying to promote it as a family town. But it's also a tourist town. And when you have a tourist town, you provide extra things to bring people here, like staying open longer," he says.

If voters concur in November, the word that Wildwood is no longer a destination for pre-dawn beers might be the first step in closing the door on the city's wilder days.

"The last couple of years we've been starting to fight our way back," says Wager, who has lived in Wildwood since 1952. "I've seen it go up, I've seen it go down," he says. "Now I'm seeing it climb back up again."

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