There's still snow on the ground, but the countdown for Memorial Day weekend 2014 at the shore has begun, with 108 days to go.
As part of the area's annual summer preparations, municipalities along the coast have begun scouting out ways to get additional revenue from their beaches.
Plans include auctioning off competitively bid ice cream vendor contracts; allowing local businesses to advertise on the sides of lifeguard boats; and creating new attractions such as a beach bar and guided jet ski tours. The latter two are planned for Wildwood and Brigantine, respectively, this summer.
The money raised is used to fund the maintenance of the beaches, which is a huge expense for municipalities and can be a burden on taxpayers.
"The goal is to try to get it as close to breaking even as possible," Ocean City's chief finance officer, Frank Donato, told The Press of Atlantic City.
Not all municipalities use the same money-making methods.
Last summer, Ocean City took in $45,000 from ice cream vendor contracts, along with additional revenue from beach tag fees and contracts for outside companies to lease out beach equipment such as chairs and umbrellas, totaling nearly $4 million.
In January, Margate awarded its single ice cream vendor contract to Shoreline, Inc. at $88,000 for the season. Shoreline, a new company in the game owned by Patrick Monaghan of Deptford Township, Gloucester County, outbid Margate's longtime ice cream vendor, Jack & Jill Ice Cream, in Egg Harbor Township.
Jack & Jill dropped out at $79,500, said Margate City Clerk Tom Hiltner. Last summer, Jack & Jill paid $67,000 for the contract, and in 2012, $40,000. Margate also imposes beach tags and has awarded advertising contracts to local businesses.
Ventnor Mayor Mike Bagnell said the city is looking into starting a business advertisement sponsorship program this summer.
"But we're not going to have the side of our beach tents looking like billboards," he said. "The way the program's going to be set up is if someone wants to sponsor a beach, they pay 'x' amount of dollars and they get a sign that says the beach is donated by their business. This will help defray some of the cost of our beach patrol and maintain our beaches."
In Wildwood, officials have put serious thought into finding new ways to rev up revenue from city beaches. For the first time, the city will award contracts for a beach bar and food vendors this summer, said Beach Utility Manager Ryan Troiano. Three bids for the beach bar were received last week, and bids for the food vendors are due Feb. 19.
Wildwood also is looking into awarding beach sponsorship to local businesses, and contracting out a beach shuttle service, although these remain ideas at this point.
Troiano said Wildwood is one of the few shore towns around to allow free access to its beaches.
Because of that, its only means of making a profit has been through ice cream vendor contracts, which bring in an annual total of $3,212. That's not nearly enough to maintain the beach to balance the approximately $1 million it costs to maintain the beaches and pay lifeguards each year.
"Our beach has been neglected for so long," Troiano said. "That's why people come to the Wildwoods, and we've been neglecting it."
He said that by increasing beach revenue, the city will be able to take better care of its beaches as well as reducing property taxes.
"Everyone who sits here and says there's not a beach fee is lying, because the beach fee is in our taxes, which isn't fair to the people who don't really utilize the beach," he said.
Cape May alleviates the burden of beach maintenance on its taxpayers by maintaining a beach utility budget, separate from its municipal expenses.
"It's a way of showing your taxpayers, and anyone coming to town, what it costs to run the beach. It's about accountability and transparency," said Mayor Ed Mahaney. "And you're only asking the people who use that service to pay, not your taxpayers. If the taxpayers go to the beach, then they have to buy a beach tag."
Cape May also has beach tags. And the city awards contracts to private companies to lease equipment — such as chairs and umbrellas — to beachgoers and to sell food within a designated section of the sand.
Last summer, the city brought in $2.5 million from its beaches, $2.1 million of it from beach access fees, and spent $2.3 million on beach maintenance and lifeguard and beach checker salaries.
Mahaney said although it sounds like the cities are making money off the beaches, the truth is they're lucky if they break even. An unforeseeable event such as a storm or a rainy summer could wash away thousands of dollars in profit in one day.
"2013 was one of the more difficult years," he said. "There are 100 days of beach tags from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day itself and there was 42 days of rain."