So just what has 53 million dollars bought the township of West Deptford?
By Venise Grossmann
It is early morning along the Delaware River in Gloucester County. The waves lap leisurely on the beach that stretches for two miles. West Deptford, once an area that was filled with a vast amount of cornfields, has changed greatly over the past half century. Roads, houses, schools, businesses, and industry have flourished. Yet along the waterfront, many parcels of land were largely left untouched. The property, which is comprised of 1,100 acres located west of Grove Road and along the riverfront, offers views of the Delaware River and the Philadelphia skyline.
In the seventies, the Army Core of Engineers began using this prime real estate as a dredge spoils site, which created a natural cove. Owned by a group of Houston-based energy firms, this vast tract of land was also used for tenant farming, yet was otherwise left untouched for decades. Large portions of West Deptford residents never even saw it. About fifteen years ago, the companies who owned the parcels decided to sell the land. The Army Corps of Engineers wanted to continue to use the site to deposit dredge spoil from a river-deepening project, which would have contaminated the area for an additional 70 years.
Former Mayor David Shield had a different vision. In 1998 the township wanted to purchase the land to avoid it becoming a dumping ground for 33 million cubic feet of mud. Since residential expansion was exhausted, he felt the land could be utilized to create a multi-use recreational facility to give residents of all ages a place to congregate.
By providing funding from grants and private investors, the project caused little revenue drain on the taxpayer. In fact, the mayor promised only a 1.2 percent tax increase. Shields felt the project would complement the township’s excellent summer and recreational program. After extensive research and consultation, in 1998, the Mayor took the proposal to a township meeting.
During the meeting on June 22, 2000, Shields presented the architectural rendering and site plans to the public for the first time. The township financed the initial construction costs for RiverWinds by 53 million dollars in bonds that would be paid off over 30 years. Despite opposition from township residents who were hesitant to undertake a project on such a grandiose scale, Mayor Shields and his team were able to convince the naysayers that a project of this magnitude was feasible. Thus, the plan to build RiverWinds was met with approval and enthusiasm.
Shortly after construction began on the age-restricted housing, on October 11th 2000, after the infrastructure was set up, the groundbreaking of the Community Center took place. Mayor Shields, Deputy Mayor Ann Docimo, Township Administrator Jerry White, and Gloucester County Freehold Director Steve Sweeney, took great pride in breaking ground as the pilings of the Community Center were first driven into the ground. Over the next several months, construction continued as various state dignitaries like Senator Jon Corzine came to show their support.
On March 2, 2002, the $27 million 111,000 square foot Community Center opened with much fanfare from local and state officials. Among those in attendance were Governor McGreevey, Senator Lautenburg, U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli, and Freehold Director Steve Sweeney. Although the whole RiverWinds concept was expected to take eight to ten years to unfold, the foundation and crucial components of the project were in place.
The jewel of RiverWinds is the Community Center with a dramatic view of the Philadelphia skyline This 111,000-square-foot recreation center houses three gymnasiums with two full-size basketball courts that can also be used for wrestling tournaments and volleyball and has retractable seating for 600 spectators, a padded wrestling gym, which is also used for martial arts classes, and two pools. One pool has eight lanes that are used for competition. The other larger pool is divided into several sections: a zero-depth entry leisure pool, diving board-equipped lap pool, hot tub, current channel, steam room, waterworks and two-story water slide.
There is a fitness center with rows of stationary bikes, treadmills, and cross trainer machines that one can enjoy while watching Cardio Theatre. The adjacent weight room is stocked with free weights and a complete line of selectorized equipment.
In the adjoining rooms, members can enjoy yoga, Pilates, karate, TRX, personal training and spinning classes. A one-seventh-mile track encircles the entire second floor. From the upper floor, members have a clear view of the 28-foot tall rock wall. For those interested in leisure activities, there is another wing at the Center with a separate room for seniors to enjoy games and billiards in front of the fireplace. The lobby houses a ping-pong table and vending machines. There is also a child-care room for children six months and older with a separate crib room and tot lot.
The Center also has a multipurpose room that can be divided into three smaller rooms. With a catering kitchen and an outdoor patio, it is ideal for meetings, parties and large receptions. Adjacent to this area is an arts and crafts room, which houses a pottery wheel and an electric kiln that can be used for sculpture and painting.
From its inception residents considered RiverWinds Community Center a great success. Because of the low cost to join, within only months, the township processed more memberships than anticipated. In recent years, the new administration and the newly formed Advisory Board made a decision to open up membership to those outside the township. Although the cap for membership is 10,500, no interested resident will be denied.
Just outside the Community Center lies a 300-seat amphitheatre. This open-air stage has a breathtaking view of the cove, river, and Philadelphia skyline. Many events occur throughout the summer and on weekends in the spring and fall. In the summer spectators can enjoy the concert series, sponsored by corporations, which showcases local musicians.
The vast portion of land that surrounds the Community Center provides a myriad of activities. Three street hockey rinks offer the youth of West Deptford a place to play and develop their skills as well as the opportunity to compete on soccer and football fields.
Across from the Community Center is the Golf and Tennis Club, which houses five indoor tennis courts, an elevated observation lounge, and locker rooms. Guests have the opportunity to take lessons from experienced coaches as well as take advantage of the many amenities that the Pro Shop has to offer.
With the City of Brotherly Love set as a backdrop, the par 72, eighteen-hole championship RiverWinds Golf Course lies between Woodbury Creek and the cove. Operated by Ron Jaworski, it is surrounded by water and wetlands and offers golfers frequent sightings of deer, fox, eagles, turkey and geese. According to Jay Curry, the Director of Golf, the signature seventeenth green provides a challenge to even the most experienced golfers. The par three begins with an elevated tee shot that overlooks the cove and Community Center and ends on a small green nestled on the edge of the cove.
The first residential community build at RiverWinds was The Village, a 154-home development by J.S. Hovnanian & Sons for residents 55 and older. The homes offer energy efficient design, quality exterior construction, and luxury interior features. The Reserve, townhomes, and an apartment complex are other age-restricted developments that were added in later phases. And at the entrance of the complex, there are two commercial buildings that provide medical and other services.
Former Mayor Shields is proud of the fiscal benefit that these residences provide the township. “The housing generates about a million dollars in taxes from the over 55 community who do not have students enrolled in the schools,” he says.
In order to experience fine dining with a view, residents don’t have to drive far. RiverWinds Restaurant overlooks the Delaware River and many customers take advantage of the outdoor seating. Ian Palagye, who worked at many upscale restaurants in Philadelphia and The Mansion in Voorhees, has been the chef since its opening four years ago. Both of their bars offer a view of the river and are always busy. The restaurant has the longest happy hour in the area, featuring twelve items for $6 (Hour Hour: 11-7 Monday-Friday and 11-4 on Sunday). Thursday-Saturday nights, guests enjoy live entertainment—one or two person singing acts. “Business has been consistently good,” says Palagye. The restaurant hosts 15-20 banquets a week, 3-5 wine dinners a year, and 3 Restaurant Weeks a year.
One of the goals of the RiverWinds Development Committee was to preserve the natural wetlands on the site. There are over 1,000 acres of protected habitat within the redevelopment area. Residents who walk along its scenic trail can enjoy the diverse terrain and natural beauty. A wide range of flowers, butterflies, and birds are easily seen throughout this natural environment.
Former Mayor David Shields frequently enjoys the tranquil atmosphere. “I walk along the river three or four times a week enjoying the view,” he says.
Although RiverWinds in its present state is considered an incredible success by Shields, there was much more development planned that never came to fruition because of the economic demise after 9/11.
When the investors went bankrupt, the plans were scrapped for a 200-room hotel and 44 million dollar Conference Center with 300 rooms. The complex was also supposed to house four restaurants as well as stores and pathways that lead to the waterways and a new marina. Another planned addition was two 168,000 square feet ice rinks with seating for 600 spectators, a roller rink, a miniature golf course, and a family entertainment center with a food court.
Other possible additions included an outdoor Swim Club, an Environmental Center, and a 4 H 150-acre Equestrian Center with horse trails throughout the site. In addition to a farm preservation area with an organic farm and community garden, a campground was also considered.
Over 14 million dollars of real estate is still available for development, and “It’s prime waterfront property,” says former Mayor Shields. “The infrastructure is there. We just need to find an investor.”
David Shields and his team had a vision: to take a piece of prime riverfront real estate and develop it to not only beautify the township but to create an environment with enough ample space for all to enjoy, and they feel they have succeeded.
“My intent was to save the School District money and provide facilities for their events and sports teams--golf, swimming, tennis, and baseball, and we have achieved that goal,” says Shields.
This Crown Jewel of the town bridges every generation and has created pride and spirit in the township. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in a large community event like this year’s 10th Annual Italian Heritage Festival of Gloucester County that was held on September 29. While various entertainers performed on the amphitheatre such as a folk band from Italy--, visitors enjoyed shopping for crafts, sampling items from local venders, and tasting Italian food. Youngsters listened to children’s story from La Fata Italiana, “the Italian fairy,” and Dr. Neff’s Sicilian Marionettes. Other popular events held throughout the year at the Community Center include Family Fun Day, an Autism Walk, an Egg Hunt at Easter, a Kenny B. Dechen Bicycle Run, and a Jeremy Maclin Football Camp.
RiverWinds, the vast area that combines development with nature beauty, is not only the focal point of West Deptford but serves as a model for other residential communities.
“The magnitude of the project is usually undertaken by large urban areas like Philadelphia’s Penn Landing and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor not by a suburban town of 20,000. Its success has inspired neighboring towns,” said former township Administrator Jerry White.
The media also gave the venture a nod of approval. A review printed in The Courier Post proclaimed, “From a bed of contaminated river muck to a sprawling piece of prime real estate, West Deptford’s RiverWinds project is an endeavor worth emulating in just about any community.”
Those in the political arena concur. Former Senator Jon Corzine called RiverWinds an "ideal blend of public and private investment,” and Senator Steve Sweeney said, “We took a fine town and made it great.”
Venise Grossmann is a teacher at West Deptford High School. She can be reached at email@example.com.