The Mayor of a Coastal Jersey Town on the Opioid Crisis

Long Branch, N.J., was once known as “America’s Most Beachy Town,” but its long-running struggle with drugs, domestic violence and alcohol abuse have led to a revitalization that has fueled an active revival of the downtown. The past two summers have brought record numbers of visitors to the renovated downtown, and property values are rising.

But a heroin epidemic in neighboring Ocean County has undermined the local economy. Many longtime business owners and blue-collar workers have been laid off or out of work. A levy to fund police and emergency services was defeated in a 2016 referendum. Sales-tax revenues are down, and the services no longer covered by local property taxes.

Many residents disagree with Mayor Peter A. Gudaitis’ approach to economic development. The New York Times’ Jacob Schlesinger wrote about the “gulf of trust” that divides Long Branch residents, even as the town is gaining new residents.

“Many of my friends, who live down the street from me, voted no. They voted no because they felt I was too hesitant, they felt that I was not fighting for their interests. That the only way that I was going to bring jobs was if I used eminent domain to force people off the property,” Mr. Gudaitis said in an interview.

His city was once a sleepy seaside destination, and it bears little resemblance to the one described in Schlesinger’s article. Drug use and domestic violence have decreased dramatically in the last decade, but many residents remain leery of the new developments.

Long Branch does have a vibrant arts community that attracts hundreds of visitors each summer and a soundtrack of live music, jazz and old-school funk. The town is revitalizing along several separate lines, from planning and zoning to marketing and business development. In March, Long Branch hosted the longest-running boardwalk festival in the country.

“I think this administration has been able to really get everybody behind us,” the mayor said. “It was always an uphill fight, and I think this administration really has knocked people off their feet by giving everybody, not just those of us who were involved in the planning, but the residents as well, a reason to want to come downtown and have fun.”

Open-ended investigations into the actions of Jersey City’s former mayor, Gerald Malloy, including the release of a video of him allegedly threatening to beat a former staffer, have brought attention to private businesses in Hudson County, including Long Branch, although not to its municipal government. Some have indicated they plan to reconsider whether to relocate outside Hudson County and its restrictions on medical marijuana licenses. Long Branch recently hosted an open house to draw investors.

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