SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. (AP) — Many New Jersey residents spent less time at the shore than usual this summer, according to a poll released Wednesday, giving credence to officials' oft-repeated worries that visitors would stay away during the lucrative season because of a perception that Superstorm Sandy had wiped out the entire coastline.
Nearly 40 percent of respondents to a Monmouth University-Asbury Park Press poll spent less time at the Jersey shore than usual this summer, with many deterred by a fear that businesses had not reopened after the devastating Oct. 29 storm.
Poll respondents who did not visit the shore as often as usual were asked why. Nearly half said the expectation that some businesses would not be open after the storm was a factor, including 25 percent who considered it a major factor and 22 percent who said it was a minor factor.
Dennis Behsman and his wife, Sandy, usually spend part of their summer in Ocean or Monmouth counties, scenes of the worst destruction, but stayed away this summer.
"They made it sound on the news like the entire area was just wiped out and washed away," he said.
On their way down this week to the largely spared southern New Jersey shore town of Ocean City, they decided on a lark to stop off in Seaside Heights, home to one of the storm's most-photographed images — a roller coaster that plunged into the ocean when the pier that supported it was swept away.
"It was fine," Behsman said. "A couple of the houses looked like they had some minor damage, but the news made it sound like everything was that way."
The erroneous perception that the entire Jersey shore was wrecked gave rise to a ubiquitous "Stronger Than The Storm" ad campaign, which drew criticism from Democrats for including popular Republican Gov. Chris Christie in the spots during his re-election campaign. Christie defended the ads as necessary to protect the state's crucial tourism industry, which accounts for close to $40 billion a year.
Overall, nearly 6 in 10 New Jersey residents polled said they visited the shore this past summer. That's down from the 70 percent who said in February that they planned to do so. Only 9 percent said they made an extra effort to visit more frequently this year.
Erratic weather also played into decisions to stay home or go elsewhere. Twenty-two percent who stayed away cited weather as a major factor; 23 percent called it a minor factor.
The telephone poll of 783 New Jersey adults, conducted Sept. 6-10, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The poll comes as the anniversary of the storm approaches. While many heavily damaged communities have made major strides, others are having a harder time. Destroyed buildings still need to be torn down, and many homes still standing need extensive renovations that are keeping their owners living elsewhere. Many need to be elevated to comply with new federal flood insurance regulations.
Despite the lingering challenges, many visitors say they are gratified there are still many places for tourists to patronize. Joan Bosko, of East Brunswick, said she and her family visit the shore repeatedly each year and did so again this year.
"I love this place," she said, eating a raspberry and vanilla frozen custard swirl on the Point Pleasant Beach boardwalk. "I grew up here as a kid. Everything we love is here, and things are fine. We did everything this year that we always do. People need to keep coming down here."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC