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Man on a Mission

by Nicole Pensiero

Curtis Bashaw grew up on the Cape May beach; now he’s working to make sure the town never loses its charm.

Once you have the sand in your toes, it’s hard to get it out.”

That’s how Curtis Bashaw—the Ivy-League educated developer whose high-profile career has included the restoration of Cape May’s legendary Congress Hall and who has worked tirelessly as a tourism advocate for the state—describes the allure of summer at the beach. “As a South Jersey native, going to the Shore each summer growing up was always a highlight,” Bashaw says.

Not that the 52-year-old would want to. Bashaw is decidedly content with his life in Cape May, where he works as co-managing partner of the renowned real estate firm Cape Advisors, Inc. He also runs Cape Resorts Group, a hotel operating company with a focus on what Bashaw calls “classic American resort properties.”

Currently, Bashaw’s company employs more than 1,500 people at its five Cape May hotels, which include Congress Hall, the Virginia Hotel & Cottages, The Star, and The Sandpiper Beach Club. In 2009, Bashaw and crew opened the retro-chic/family-friendly Beach Shack, which—in a former life—had been a rather run-down two-story motel but now is one of Cape May’s most popular destinations. He and business partner Craig Wood are also responsible for the hipster Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City. Additionally, Cape Advisors renovated Cape May’s West End Garage a few years ago, turning it into a diverse retail space for more than 40 artisans and vendors.

“It has been a real joy to create a business that employs people committed to selling memories and simple pleasures,” Bashaw says. “I have such fond memories of my own summers at the Shore; it’s been a pleasure to introduce new generations of folks to the charms of the Jersey Shore.”

Indeed, Bashaw—well known for his expertise in adaptive reuse and historic preservation of landmark hotels—has created an identity as the Cape May region’s ultimate innkeeper. Beginning with The Virginia Hotel, which he bought in 1986 and impeccably refurbished, Bashaw has had a goal of providing far more than just comfortable lodging: “We exist to sell memories.

“All of our projects tie into the heritage of the property itself,” Bashaw explains. “We deliver the classic American vacation experience, with amenities that focus on simple pleasures—enjoying iced tea on the beach, having your umbrellas brought down to the water for you, those kinds of things.”

Bashaw’s career as a visionary had its roots firmly planted in his South Jersey childhood. The openly gay grandson of the late fundamentalist preacher Rev. Carl McIntire—himself an iconic figure in Cape May—Bashaw grew up in Cherry Hill and spent many summers in Cape May, after McIntire salvaged the decrepit Congress Hall in 1968 and turned it into an evangelical center.

As a teenager, Bashaw worked his summers at Congress Hall as a bellhop, waiter and front-desk clerk. He has a distinct memory of the summer of 1977 when, as a 17-year-old, he took a walk on the boardwalk after getting off his shift.

“It was one of those beautiful nights with a full moon and the water really glistening,” Bashaw recalls. “I remember looking back at Congress Hall and thinking, ‘It sure would be fun to fix it up someday.’” Little could he have imagined his very thought would become a reality in the decades to follow.

In 1982, the summer before his senior year at Chicago-area Wheaton College, Bashaw was asked to manage Congress Hall, an experience that “managed to solidify my bond with that building even more.” While his attorney father, Keith, was encouraging him to begin law school and join his firm, Bashaw “kept deferring it because I was kind of enjoying what I was doing in Cape May.”

In 1986, his attorney-turned-real estate developer dad offered financial support so Bashaw could purchase the landmark Virginia Hotel, built in 1879. “That was my first property, so it was a real learning experience,” says Bashaw. The Virginia—which houses the acclaimed Ebbitt Room restaurant—became something of a breakthrough in Cape May lodging.

“It was the first property in town to transcend the choice between a B&B or a motel,” Bashaw states. “It offered the best of both worlds—the charm and history of a B&B and some of the amenities more commonly found in a motel, like air conditioning.”

Bashaw, who earned his MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania while commuting to Cape May on the weekends, found his next major project when Rev. McIntire’s empire ran into business and regulatory problems in the late 1980s. Eventually, McIntire’s other large Cape May property—The Christian Admiral—was demolished and its land sold to both pay off creditors and raise funds to save Congress Hall.

It took many years, but Bashaw eventually raised more than $22 million to transform the decaying Congress Hall. “It was a very long process from the vision to the actual opening,” Bashaw says with great understatement. “But it was all worth it in the long run.”

Indeed, with Congress Hall now in the National Register of Historic Places and considered the crown jewel of Cape May’s hotel properties, Bashaw believes his late grandfather would have been especially proud of its transformation.

“He had a real love for old, historic buildings and their heritage,” Bashaw says. “He was also a very patriotic guy who loved the private enterprise. So yes, I think he would be very pleased to see what Congress Hall has become.”

A leading tourism advocate for New Jersey, the articulate and unassuming Bashaw became known throughout the state as the organizer of a series of summits during his 18-month stint as executive director of the State Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a position he held during Gov. Jim McGreevey’s term. During his tenure, Bashaw also implemented a $100-million Boardwalk Revitalization Fund, which issued design guidelines to help spruce up the look of storefronts and casinos along the Atlantic City boardwalk. He was also involved in the development of The Walk (i.e., Tanger Outlets), which greet visitors as they cruise into town along the Atlantic City Expressway.

Bashaw’s ability to continue to grow his business in the wake of the 2008 recession became clearly evident with the opening of the budget-conscious yet chic Beach Shack, and its accompanying Rusty Nail bar, home of what he describes as Cape May’s “coldest beer and best fish tacos.”

While the original plans called for the old motel on the property to be torn down to make room for a luxury resort, it turned into what Bashaw calls “our Great Recession project.”

“We thought, ‘Let’s fix this place up instead and make it an affordable, fun place for people of all ages and their families,” he says.

While he’s continually garnered attention for his lodging properties, Bashaw is currently gearing up for an opening of a different kind—a food stand. As he explains, Cape Advisors has owned a large, sustainable organic farm in West Cape May for several years. There, dozens of crops of fruits and vegetables—as well as chicken and hogs—are grown, providing fresh, organic food items for Bashaw’s many hotel-based restaurants, such as The Ebbitt Room and Congress Hall’s Blue Pig Tavern.

“They say that New Jersey is the Garden State; its roots are so tied to agriculture,” he offers.

“The time seems right to open the food stand. We’re very excited about it.”

The timing and the vibe of the latest Bashaw adventure is, he says, “synergistic and I’m grateful to be part of it.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 3 (June, 2012).
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