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Rural Aid Goes to Urban Areas

Since 2001, Wildwood has been awarded about $13 million by Rural Development in loans and grants, records show. Nearly $10 million has been awarded for sewer repairs to handle the surging summer crowds and traffic from a new convention center. Wildwood has also received millions to replace windows and doors at its city hall, renovate a long stretch of boardwalk, repair public restrooms, spruce up streets, and conduct a parking study.

"Because of the densities of Wildwood, Wildwood may not appear to be rural, but it meets the formula for rural," said Gordon Dahl, a federally funded economic development official who has helped the city obtain many of its grants. "It's sort of like saying, 'Is the tax code fair?' Some people would say it is, and some people would say it isn't."

The city, which has been designated an "Urban Enterprise Zone" by state officials, has enjoyed the backing of Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo (R-N.J.). The congressman and his staff have made numerous inquiries to Rural Development officials on behalf of Wildwood and other towns in LoBiondo's district, correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows.

"As I've always said, we are blessed to have Frank LoBiondo as a leader in Congress," Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. was quoted as saying in a news release issued by LoBiondo's office in August. "He continues to be proactive in obtaining necessary grants to help our communities and a fine example of what dedicated public servants means to our communities."

LoBiondo's spokesman said the congressman was responding to Wildwood's request for help. "The congressman is happy to write a letter," Jason Galanes said. "But that's the extent of his involvement.

"It's not for the congressman to create the definition or to dole these grants out," Galanes added. "The argument could be made that the federal government should update its definition. But it's not for the congressman to decide."

The four other beach towns on the five-mile barrier island with Wildwood received grants and loans from Rural Development totaling more than $10 million, a Post analysis found. Cape May got about $4 million to repair its sewers. City Manager Luciano V. Corea Jr. said the money is a form of tax relief for local property holders. "It's obviously going to save us a significant amount of money," he said. The median price of a house in Cape May is about $450,000.

Up the New Jersey coast, the beach town of Lavallette received more than $5 million for its water and sewer systems. The population is 10 times as large in the summer, more than 30,000, and places a strain on the systems, according to Michele Burk, the town's chief financial officer. The average price of a house in Lavallette is about $700,000.

Burk said "USDA went out of its way to advertise" that money was available. Ten to 15 years ago, year-round residents had to drive across the bridge to shop, Burk said. "Not so much anymore. Ten to 15 years ago," she said, "it was quite rural."

Rural Development aid can go even to areas from which the spires of Manhattan are visible. Haledon, N.J. -- about 10 miles from New York -- was awarded grants and loans for its water system totaling $4 million. "Haledon is a small community, well under 10,000, and it's not wealthy," said Justin Mahon, an engineer who worked on the project. "But would I characterize it as rural? No. This isn't Mississippi."

Subsidized Suburbs

Rural Development money does not go just to beach towns and hamlets looking to spruce up their boardwalks and rebuild their aging infrastructure. The money also fuels massive suburban growth.

Three utilities serving the booming Atlanta suburbs have received more than $400 million since 2001, records show.

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