December 11, 2002
The changing face of OC Recreation
By TOM WILLIAMS
Things have changed in recreation since the days of Ocean City’s old convention hall.
Many remember the time when George Gardiner, who won national awards for his recreation programs,
would show up at the convention hall Saturday mornings at 9:30 to open the building. There would be a
dozen or so players already waiting.
George would turn on the lights and, if necessary, the heaters. He’d check the bathroom, get out a few
basketballs and leave. He would stop back after lunch for a quick walk-through and then, if there was a
nighttime activity in the building, come back late in the afternoon to chase the basketball players out.
You couldn’t do that today.
Because of liabilities in this litigious society, there needs to be qualified supervision in all public buildings
when they are being used. And that requires personnel.
First, about the old convention hall. A large number of Gazette readers probably never heard of the
building, didn’t even know there had been one. It was located at the beach end of Sixth Street, where the
Civic Center is now located. Only the convention hall was at boardwalk level. It had a stage at the west
end, a single bathroom (there were others with outside entrances), one regulation basketball court and a
small one tucked into a corner at the east end. The problem with the big court was the pillars that lined it.
Though they were padded, many a player flew into them trying to save a ball.
If you went to the convention hall on a Saturday, you’d see some great basketball. The superstars of the
building were guys like Wayne Thompson, the Hannah brothers and Fred Bowman. Dixie Howell frowned
upon his players getting involved – he was concerned about injuries or picking up bad habits. But, before
and after the high school season, you’d also find guys like Tom Adams, Mike and Jerry Fadden, Gary
Satrappe and John Cranston working their magic. You might even get to see Ken Leary hitting people in
the chest with his pinpoint passes when they were open but didn’t think he saw them.
It was a great experience, but from a different time.
Those were also the days when you had to climb the fence to get onto the recreation field on Sundays
because it was a violation of the Blue Laws to play sports on city land on Sunday. Then you’d hide when
you saw a police car. Fortunately, the Roy Gillian administration got rid of those limitations.
Last week, a letter to the editor in The Gazette criticized the current recreation department, primarily for
not offering enough basketball. Mike Allegretto, the city’s Director of Recreation, has been with the
department for 32 years. Before taking charge, he worked for Don Pileggi.
(By the way, isn’t it amazing that in more than 60 years, Ocean City has only had three recreation
directors. Talk about stability.)
“We know we need to open the gym more,” Allegretto said, “and we are moving quickly in that direction.
But you can’t just open the doors. Somebody has to be there. Counting me, there are only two full time
and two part time employees in the department. But we are about to advertise for another full-timer. We
hope to fill the position by mid-January. And another part-timer might be right behind.”
An expanded staff will allow the Civic Center, built in 1983, to add more hours to its schedule and offer
more “open” gym time. In addition, the completion of the new high school could help in two ways – getting
the high school teams off the Civic Center schedule and giving the recreation department two additional
gyms in the new high school that they can use after high school programs are finished.
“Our basketball leagues are building up again,” Allegretto said. “Some volunteers have come forward to
coach additional traveling teams and more kids are getting interested. We give more time to basketball
from December through February than any other sport. But we can’t be all basketball.”
Allegretto had been trying to get the Civic Center expanded about 50 feet to the north, enabling them to
create another playing court and additional locker rooms. But they will wait until the high school is
completed to see what positive impact that new facility actually has on their programs.
“We don’t really have control over school gyms,” Allegretto said. “We have to request their use just like
anybody else. But the new school should help all of us.”
The new high school will allow the OCHS teams to practice and play in their owns gyms again, opening up
additional time at the Intermediate School and Civic Center.
But recreation, Allegretto said, is not about building high school dynasties. “Recreation is to learn about
sports and activities that interest you,” he said, “and, in sports, to get a chance to compete. There is a
strong social aspect to recreation.”
The department was criticized for allowing street hockey in the building for most of Saturday afternoon. It is
scheduled from 1-4, Allegretto said, and that is the only time the sport is in the building all week. And the
high school winter field hockey league that plays there is renting the building.
“That was a time – from 8 until 9:30 – when the building wasn’t being used,” Allegretto said, “and the few
dollars we get for the use can help keep other entry and registration fees down.”
There is no doubt that the city’s recreation program needs to expand and the additional facilities and
personnel should make that easier. But Allegretto is correct when he says it is not the purpose of his
department to build high school programs.
The high school soccer teams are successful because of the proliferation of youth programs throughout
the area, many of them independent of recreation programs. The field hockey team certainly hasn’t won
five state titles because of those 90-minute winter league games. Of course, the good coaching at the high
school level has something to do with it.
Ocean City used to be a basketball powerhouse. It also used top be a swimming powerhouse. Things
change. As the high school’s sports program has grown from five sports in the 60s to 21 in 2002 there are
more options for athletes. More and more are limiting themselves to one sport, thereby weakening one or
two other sports that could have benefited from their talents.
The Raider basketball program remains competitive – they were South Jersey champions just three years
ago – against a far tougher schedule than in the 60s. And, like every other public school in the area, they
face the added burden of losing young athletes who pick St. Augustine Prep, Holy Spirit or Wildwood
With new facilities coming and an increase in the size of the recreation staff, Allegretto plans additional
programs and more gym time for his current programs. But it won’t all be about producing winners on the
high school level.
“That’s not our purpose,” he said. “Our goal is to find something that interests everybody.”
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