By Emma Uk
Sea Bright – On Jan. 19, at the Sea Bright Council meeting, a compromise in the form of a conditional approval put the Mad Hatter back on track after years of delay and waiting on construction.
The decision to conditionally approve the renewal of a liquor license came after the borough and S. Kelly Corporation – owned by Scott and Amy Kelly, owners of the Mad Hatter – debated the issuance of a new liquor license for the business, given the lack of physical proof that the Kellys obtained the necessary funding for the pub and restaurant’s construction.
The unfinished Mad Hatter building is a major source of frustration as well as excitement for Sea Bright residents and the council alike. The Mad Hatter was popular for its thin crust pizza and tiki bar in a residential and commercial neighborhood, until it was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Instead of just rebuilding, the Kellys decided to turn the pizzeria into a three-story restaurant, triple its original size. However, construction permits, concerns from Sea Bright residents and funding issues slowed the progress down. Now, the site has been dormant for two years, with about a year of construction left until completion.
For the Kellys, obtaining necessary funding has been a major problem, but Jason Mandia, the Kelly’s attorney, said they have signed loan agreements and all accompanying documents, but they were signed the same day as the council meeting. Although the Kellys agreed to confidentially send proof of funding to the borough’s attorney, Roger McLaughlin, the council didn’t want to approve the liquor license before seeing the documents, since any possible remedies to their decision and the resolution will be limited. The impasse risked another period of delay for the Mad Hatter, which Mandia and Kelly feared could jeopardize the loan.
“We’re dealing with a lender that’s lending a lot of money,” Mandia said. “And one of the premises is we’re going to have a licensed operation here.”
The Kellys have waited years for this lender to come through, and they feared that not having a license or proof from the council that their business is approved could scare the lender away. “There’s not too many lenders lending to restaurants right now,” Kelly said. “So, I don’t have a lot of options.”
Sea Bright resident Christina Doxey didn’t see any reason to delay issuing the license either, since the Kellys obtained funding like they were supposed to. “They’ve come through this time and have done what they were able to do with the funding,” Doxey told the council. “I think it’s a good thing. I’m delighted that the Mad Hatter will remain in Sea Bright. And I don’t think they should be held up any longer.”
Delaying the license and possibly funding aren’t the only issues. Jim Scholefield, who lives near the construction site, asked how much longer the materials on site will remain insecure, which is especially problematic in windy weather. “I mean, there’s concrete board flying off the building in high wind events. I picked up acres of that blue fabric in my yard and against my fence, every time the wind kicks up.”
Scholefield says he’s picked up concrete board from the middle of the street and it blows far, creating a potential hazard. Securing the site is an issue the municipality has raised, and according to Kelly, is the first thing they will take care of, but having a timeframe is just as important to residents as approving the license and moving things forward.
Amy Kelly anticipates construction to take sixteen weeks, although residents have their doubts. According to Mandia, once all the liens are paid-off by the lender directly, funding for construction will be released. However, it may take around thirty days for the lender to pay them off, followed by a New Jersey EDA (NJEDA) loan which may add more time. However, Mandia says that since NJEDA was willing to subordinate through postponement, it shouldn’t take long. “We just have to re-engage,” Mandia said.
In an effort to move things along for the Mad Hatter while not compromising diligence, the council and the Kellys agreed to conditionally approve the liquor license. Meaning the Kellys can show their lender that their license has been approved, but the final approval is based on the condition of McLaughlin’s review, which means the resolution will carry over to the next council meeting on Feb 2.
As long as McLaughlin finds the documents satisfactory and the council agrees, the condition will be removed, and the liquor license finalized.