Cape Crusader

Curtis Bashaw didn’t become the southern Shore’s most dynamic developer just for the money. In fact, his commitment to Cape May and the Shore is almost an article of faith.

On the grand veranda of his Congress Hall Hotel in Cape May, owner Curtis Bashaw relaxes with his sister and design partner, Colleen, on the hotel’s signature rocking chairs.
Photo by Chris Crisman.

Curtis Bashaw likes to think big—witness his restoration of the 1878 Congress Hall Hotel, the majestic, V-shaped landmark that, since reopening in 2002, has become the linchpin of Cape May’s latest renaissance. But when unfavorable winds blow, he can just as easily downsize his ambitions, or, in his words, “meet the market where it is.” A recent case in point was his transformation of a one-time Model T dealership on the west side of Cape May.

Bashaw’s two companies—Cape Resorts, which manages his hotel properties, and Cape Advisors, a development company he runs in partnership with Craig Wood—are situated in offices scattered around Cape May. “We were going to consolidate all our offices into West End Garage,” he says, “but when the market changed, we said, ‘Let’s not overextend ourselves right now.’” Instead, he restored the building and turned it into an eclectic retail space for about 48 artists, craftspeople, and vendors.

“It’s created a nice afternoon thing for people to do and allows vendors to get in for a low start-up cost,” says Bashaw, whose company earns rent and 10 percent of sales. “It’s kind of fun to poke around there. We have a waiting list of vendors now.”

Bashaw had even more ambitious plans for the Coachman Inn, a run-down, two-story, 1970s motel facing the beach. It was to be razed and replaced with a fractional-ownership resort. But when credit seized up in 2008, Bashaw decided to rehab. With his sister, Colleen, an interior designer based in Ridgewood who has been involved in all his projects, he kept the laminated dressers and went all-out ’60s retro. Last year it reopened as the Beach Shack, a family motel with a frisky feel. The fallback plan also saved and expanded the Rusty Nail, a beloved, scruffy beach bar on the premises.

“We really didn’t have a lot of options,” says Colleen. “So we said, ‘Let’s make the best of what we have.’” Now in its second season, the Beach Shack is “pacing well ahead of last season,” and the Rusty Nail is going gangbusters.

“I was blessed with a fairly optimistic and creative gene,” says Bashaw, the oldest of five siblings. “I don’t waste too much time crying over spilt milk.”

“Curtis’s mind is really sharp on what to do and when to do it,” says Tom Carroll, one of Cape May’s most influential historic preservationists. “He has one of the best business senses I’ve ever seen.”

“Shrewd” and “hard-nosed” are not the first adjectives that spring to mind when you meet Bashaw. Tall and boyishly handsome, he has a disarming, ebullient manner. Jack Wright, now editor of Exit Zero, Cape May’s weekly magazine, recalls first meeting Bashaw in New York City in 2000. “I was instantly struck by Curtis’s charisma and cheeky charm,” he says.

Yet Bashaw’s accomplishments speak for themselves. At 50, he rides herd on a portfolio of upscale properties in Cape May. In addition to Congress Hall, West End Garage, and the Beach Shack, there are the boutique Virginia Hotel & Cottages; the vest-pocket Star Inn; and the Sandpiper Beach Club, a former motel turned condo with rentals. He also has a footprint in Atlantic City (the Chelsea Hotel, the first non-gaming hotel built in the city in the casino era); Manhattan (several condo, retail, and hotel projects); and even Sag Harbor at the eastern end of Long Island, where he is poised to convert the 1878 Bulova Watch Company factory into LEED-certified condos.

Bashaw is a product of his roots, and to understand him you need to go back to the heyday of his maternal grandfather, the Reverend Carl McIntire, a breakaway Presbyterian who became an evangelical fundamentalist and built a Chautauqua-style religious community in Cape May in the 1960s. McIntire’s radio show, The Twentieth Century Reform Hour, was broadcast on more than 600 stations and raised large sums for his operation. He also had a publishing company and a flair for generating publicity.

Cape May was a sleepy place, not the garden of B&Bs it is now, when a vicious nor’easter battered the town in March 1962. McIntire was able to buy up damaged houses in the middle of town for as little as $1 and have them relocated to land he purchased near the Coast Guard station, where he also bought the moribund Admiral Hotel, which he renamed the Christian Admiral.

Bashaw was just a toddler, but he came in the arms of his parents, who lived in Cherry Hill, as did McIntire’s other children and grandchildren, to help shovel sand out of the hotel’s lower lobby and spruce things up. Thus was the Christian Admiral Bible Conference and Freedom Center launched. In 1967, McIntire’s organization bought the rundown Congress Hall Hotel for $350,000.

Keith Bashaw, Curtis’s father, is an attorney, CPA, and real estate developer. When Curtis was growing up, the Bashaws moved from house to house in Cherry Hill, but they always summered at the retreat. In high school, Curtis worked at Congress Hall as bellhop, busboy, waiter, and front-desk clerk, and gave guided tours of the town. Bashaw’s paternal grandfather managed Congress Hall and also a McIntire retreat in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Bashaw’s cousin, Cape May marketing executive Norris Clark (his mother is a McIntire daughter), remembers the reverend holding court at family gatherings. “We would debate with him,” Clark recalls. “Religion and politics were the main topics. He taught us to think for ourselves, and even when Curtis would disagree with him, he would respect that.”

The grandchildren were not just spectators. “He would bring us on stage with him and ask us to say something,” Clark relates. “So we grew up listening to a great speaker and being asked to speak ourselves. That would explain Curtis’s communication skills. Curtis learned charisma from his maternal grandfather, business acumen from his father, and taste from his mother and maternal grandmother.” (The latter did all the decorating at the Christian Admiral.) “The two sides of Curtis,” Clark sums up, “are well integrated into one person.”

At Wheaton College, a conservative Christian school near Chicago, Bashaw studied philosophy. But, he says, “I ended up falling in love with these buildings and enjoyed working on projects to fix them up.”

Through the efforts of many people, Cape May in its entirety was granted National Historic Landmark status in 1976. In 1982, the summer before his senior year at Wheaton, Bashaw (at 22 the second oldest of McIntire’s thirteen grandchildren) managed Congress Hall. After that he continued to help his grandfather. Bashaw says his grandfather’s appreciation of the buildings for their own sake, not just as vessels for his religious mission, and love of Americana appealed to him and influenced him greatly.

Bashaw does not make a secret of being gay. As early as 1992, he and his grandfather discussed the matter frankly. “He never felt being gay was an appropriate choice in life,” says Bashaw of the reverend, who died in 2002. “But I never felt unaccepted by him. I never felt he was an intolerant person. He was not afraid to argue his point of view or try to persuade others, but at the end of the day, if you didn’t agree with him, he wasn’t going to condemn you. I always admired his energy, his creativity, and his willingness to stand up for what he believed. The guy never had problems sleeping.

“My background,” he concludes, “gave me examples of people who stuck by their beliefs. That enabled me to live by my own standards and be who I am.”

In 1986, Bashaw struck out on his own. “My father,” he says, “fronted me the capital to do my first project outside my grandfather’s orbit.” They bought and restored the Virginia, a small Victorian hotel on Jackson Street that had been a dormitory for workers at the retreat. In 1989, Bashaw reopened it with an upscale restaurant, the Ebbitt Room. He had enrolled the year before at the Wharton School at Penn, where he earned an MBA while commuting to Cape May on weekends.

McIntire’s empire ran into business and regulatory problems in the 1980s; its sources of income dried up, and in 1990 the operation declared bankruptcy. Bashaw, integrating his charisma and business skills as never before, set about finding investors to buy the Christian Admiral and Congress Hall.

“I remember one of the main creditors’ lawyers said to me, ‘Curtis, why don’t you buy it? You’re more passionate about these buildings than anybody.’”

The deal took five years to complete. In the end, Bashaw had to make what he calls a “Sophie’s choice” between the two hotels. The Admiral was demolished and its land sold to pay off creditors and raise money to save Congress Hall, which was bigger, more striking, and located in the heart of town. “I loved the classic hotels like the Sagamore [in upstate New York] and the Greenbrier [in West Virginia],” Bashaw says. “And I thought Congress Hall was as good as any of them.”

He eventually raised $22 million to transform Congress Hall from eyesore to Cape May’s crown jewel. “It was a long slog from vision to completion,” Clark says. “There were dark hours when lesser people would have shrunk from the task.”

“I don’t think anybody else would have done what Curtis has done,” agrees Tom Carroll, who with his wife, Sue, helped pioneer Cape May’s high-style bed-and-breakfast movement in the mid-1970s with their Mainstay Inn. “The Congress Hall was not like a couple taking on a bed & breakfast. It was an all-consuming process, involving finding the right grants, approvals from the National Park Service and the city. And he did it so creatively. He didn’t just tap into the existing people in Pennsylvania and Maryland that the B&B people went for. He advertised in New York, offering Cape May as an alternative to the Hamptons, with an amazing array of family experiences and sophistication in one place.”

In Bashaw’s mind, Congress Hall “was rife with potential. We knew that the model we used at the Virginia was successful—a hybrid combining the charm of B&Bs with the amenities of hotel products. Not to stereotype, but you could say the husband wanted air conditioning and TV and the wife liked lace and architecture. At Virginia we married that, and the market embraced it.”

Bashaw is a demanding boss. Jack Wright was editor of Gear magazine when he met Bashaw in 2000. They became friends and, in 2002, when Wright decided to quit his job, Bashaw persuaded him to come to Congress Hall for the summer and run the pool bar.

“I must say I preferred him as a friend than as a boss!” Wright says. “He’s a micromanager, and he gets involved in every detail, which is remarkable given how much he has on his plate at any given time. Although that can make him difficult to work for sometimes, because he has such exacting standards, it also explains why his projects work so well.”

Bashaw’s expansion beyond Cape May began in 2002 when Governor James McGreevey and his then wife, Dina Matos, happened to stay at Congress Hall. Bashaw recognized them dining at the Virginia’s restaurant, the Ebbitt Room, and asked the governor if he liked his dessert. Soon they were conversing about the Shore. “Basically,” says Clark, “Curtis told McGreevey that the Shore is Jersey’s greatest asset, and you need to do a better job of selling it. That caught McGreevey’s attention.”

McGreevey and Bashaw stayed in touch, and in 2004 the governor appointed him executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which redirects 1.25 percent of casino revenues to economic development projects, primarily in Atlantic City.

Bashaw stayed in the job eighteen months, during which time he implemented a $100 million Boardwalk Revitalization Fund. The program issued design guidelines, backed by funding, intended to bring some much-needed panache to dilapidated Boardwalk storefronts and to help the casinos end the era of cold, nearly blank-wall facades looking out on the ocean. The BRF encouraged construction of terraces and courtyards and the use of more inviting materials like stone, brick, and terra cotta. The plan prompted the Showboat Casino to use stone instead of stucco when it added a House of Blues nightclub on the Boardwalk in 2005.

“The facade program on the boardwalk really expanded what the CRDA had normally done,” says Roger Gros, publisher of Casino Connection Atlantic City. Bashaw also got involved in the Walk, a project to replace abandoned homes and an old bus depot with an outlet mall and create a walkway connecting the Boardwalk to the Convention Center.

“What I authorized was Phases Two and Three, which include the streetscape improvements when you come off the Atlantic City Expressway so you feel a sense of arrival,” Bashaw says. “My administration also approved the plans to double the size of the retail component.”

Bashaw had been in his new position only four months when McGreevey, knowing Bashaw was gay, called him and asked for his help dealing with a very urgent problem: A man the governor had appointed as state homeland security advisor, and with whom he had been having an extramarital affair, was about to sue McGreevey for sexual harassment. Bashaw told Philadelphia magazine that he never suspected McGreevey was gay. (“When I met him, my gay-dar didn’t go off.”) The governor invited Bashaw to huddle with him in Princeton, where McGreevey confessed his secrets and dictated his resignation speech to the emotionally riveted developer, who wrote it down. “It was an amazing three or four days, seeing someone come to terms with such a basic part of their humanity under a pressure cooker,” Bashaw says.

Though he left the CRDA, Bashaw was not done with Atlantic City. In fact, he had long had his eye on two aging properties on Chelsea Avenue: a former Howard Johnson’s Hotel and an adjacent Holiday Inn, which fronted on the Boardwalk. (The spot happens to be half a block from the church on Chelsea Avenue where McIntire had his first pulpit in 1931.) In 2008, after a $110 million renovation that joined the two buildings, Bashaw unveiled the Chelsea Hotel.

Opening in the teeth of the recession, the Chelsea has struggled, as has all of Atlantic City, where casino profits were down 21 percent last year from 2008. But Bashaw is intrigued by legislation introduced in March by state Senator Jim Whalen. The bill, which hasn’t come to the Senate floor, would reduce the minimum size of casinos from 60,000 square feet of gaming space and 500 hotel rooms to 20,000 to 30,000 square feet and 200 rooms. The aim is to open up abandoned Boardwalk properties to development by allowing smaller casinos and lowering the amount of capital needed to build.

With 331 rooms, the Chelsea would be eligible to build a casino. “It might make a lot of sense for the hotel,” Bashaw says. He thinks it definitely makes sense for the city. “We have a pretty tired fleet,” he explains. “We need to retool and diversify.”

But more casino space in a town where the supply perhaps already exceeds demand and one casino floor looks pretty much like the next?

For Bashaw, what’s needed is not more of the same, but more individuality. “We do need to create more demand,” he says, “and one way to do that is to create new product. But every casino should have a different personality. There are people who would like to participate in gaming but don’t want to hang out in one of those stereotyped casinos. Branding is all about slicing and dicing and finding your niche.”

Bashaw has certainly found his. He and his partner, Will Riccio, divide time between a beautifully restored Victorian home in Cape May and a home in New York City. Bashaw is quite comfortable with his success, even if others sometimes are not.

“There’s sort of jealousy or envy,” says B&B pioneer Tom Carroll. “Some people think he’s too big for his britches, yet I look at him as one of the most generous people in the community. He gives back on a regular basis. He’s been a generous supporter of Cape May Stage, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, and he makes Congress Hall available for civic functions at almost no cost.”

As far as Bashaw is concerned, buffetting of one kind or another goes with the territory. “Any real estate project is always an iterative process,” he says. “Market conditions and costs are always shifting. If you need everything to be static and laid out just as planned, you probably shouldn’t be a developer.”

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