LONGPORT — Nearly two years after it disappeared amidst a contract dispute, the borough’s signature smiley face has returned.
“It’s like, ‘Look at that — an old friend is back’,” said Tangie Alvarez, 57, of Ventnor, who stopped to snap a photo while bicycling down Atlantic Avenue.
Painters made quick work of the smile Thursday to the delight of residents and visitors who’ve grown accustomed to their benevolent overseer, which has graced the 125-foot tower at 31st and Devon avenues since 1982.
“The only smile that’s bigger than the water tower’s smile is mine,” gushed Mayor Nick Russo, who’s fielded a steady stream of calls about the smile in recent years.
While the borough’s predicament has also been the butt of jokes, Russo said losing the symbol mattered to a lot of people.
“Funny thing is, for children it’s a reflection of innocense and simplicity and for adults it can be a diversion from a stressful day,” he said, standing beneath the freshly painted tower. “It does have a purpose.”
In 2011, Longport awarded a $600,000 contract for routine maintenance and repainting to the Gloucester Township-based Beckett Enterprises, but the project was marked by repeated delays. Longport officials say Beckett breached the contract and turned in subpar work. The contractor could not be reached for comment Thursday, but previously said his firm stopped work when the borough withheld payment.
A study commissioned by the borough found more than a dozen items never addressed or left incomplete. Beyond the superficial paint work, including the smiley face, problems included an access door with rusting hinges and necessary repairs to the anchor bolts that secure the tower to its foundation.
Earlier this year, Longport hired the Salem County-based Corrosion Control Corp. to complete the work for $91,000.
Construction foreman Marc Benson and two others, Claude Paitsel and Jeff Henley, scaled the tower in a bucket lift to restore the smile amid the threat of rainclouds. While conditions on the ground were calm, Benson said winds reached 20 mph 100 feet off the ground.
The eight-hour process began Wednesday as the crew used a massive stencil — perforations mark the edges — to trace the smiley face onto the tower. Next, he said, the painters colored in between the lines.
Benson, 44, of Williamsport, Pa., said tracing out the smile requires a lot patience and precision.
“Go home and try to stick a stamp on a golf ball and have it be perfectly centered,” he said, with a chuckle. “You’ll see what we had to do.”
Each eye measures 5 feet in diameter and the smile is 32 feet across, he said, but it’s easy to mess up the placement.
“A little planning goes a long way,” he said. “You don’t want to finish and realize it’s cockeyed.”
Inclement weather meant work had to wrap up early Thursday, but Benson said he plans to return Monday to paint “The Best Port Longport” slogan onto the other side. All of the work, inside and out, is expected to be complete by next Thursday, he said.
Russo said Longport is still pursuing its legal options for recouping funds from the original contractor. Luckily, he said, the borough withheld about $50,000 when it became apparent the previous company would not complete the job per its agreement.
Word of the smile’s return has already spread throughout the small shore town, he said.
“It’s baaack,” Russo intoned. “And before Memorial Day, too.”
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