WILDWOOD — Later this week, more than 20,000 firefighters and their families will descend on the city for the New Jersey State Firemen’s Convention.
“It’s become a staple of our community,” Mayor Ernie Troiano said.
But it wasn’t always. For a “good 40 years,” until 1975, the gathering was held in Atlantic City, according to George Heflich, president of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association, which provides burial and relief services for about 71,000 municipal firefighters in the state.
The story goes that in 1969, W. Robert Hentges, former mayor of West Wildwood and longtime Cape May County surrogate, attended the event as a firefighter and pushed for the relocation of the convention.
According to an account of the proceedings Hentges wrote later, he was booed off the stage for his proposal, with the treasurer of the organization saying that Wildwood “rolled up the sidewalks” after Labor Day.
Equipped with a better sales pitch, which included offers for cut-rate rooms, free parking and authorization for a large parade, Hentges returned to Atlantic City to make his case again in 1970.
This time, Hentges wrote, the firefighters approved the proposal, with many of them concerned about crime in Atlantic City.
The convention was a valuable coup, becoming the first large event to be held in Wildwood during the so-called “second season.” John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, said a “conservative” estimate would be that the event generates $5 million to $7 million for the city annually.
“I’d say the firemen weekend ranks among the busiest that we have here during the summer and fall season,” said Steve Tecco, owner of the Armada Hotel and president of the Greater Wildwood Hotel/Motel Association.
“It’s a great thing for the city anytime you can bring a state convention in the offseason,” said Tracey DuFault, executive director of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce.
Forty-one years later, Atlantic City hasn’t given up on bringing the convention back.
“We do talk to them,” said Gary Musich, vice president of sales for Meet AC, the group that lobbies to bring events to the Atlantic City Convention Center. “We’d love to have them back.”
“Atlantic City has made two pitches to get it back over the years,” said Dave Thompson, president of the Five Mile Beach Volunteer Firemen’s Association, an organization composed of the island’s fire departments.
However, Musich said several factors stand in the way of the convention coming back to Atlantic City, including expensive weekend hotel rooms and the logistics of the convention and parade.
“There’s a lot of reasons,” he said. “The primary is we just don’t have space in the center.”
Another reason, Heflich said, is that the casino hotels in the city don’t guarantee enough rooms for the more than 7,000 convention delegates and their families.
“They didn’t want us anymore because we were on a weekend,” Heflich said. “They couldn’t offer us enough rooms.”
The gathering is booked at the Wildwoods Convention Center through 2020.
“We’re happy to have anything we can get,” Troiano said. “We’re very grateful.”
“The economic impact to the island is quite large and to the county even larger,” he added.
The “majority” of the firefighters like Wildwood, Heflich said. He added the firefighters bring their families with them to the convention, something that was not common when it was held in Atlantic City.
“That was our claim to fame,” Troiano said. “We are a family-based resort area.”
“Not every event works in every city,” Musich said. “Events like that are better in Wildwood.”