Profile: Preservation and Resilience on New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore

Scott Gurian | July 30, 2014 | Profiles
Meghan Wren wants to share rich cultural heritage of the Bayshore, and ensure that it gets its fair share of Sandy recovery funds

Meghen Wren
Who she is: Founder and executive director of the Bayshore Center at Bivalve.

Age: 49

Why she matters: Since 1988, Wren’s organization has been a vocal advocate for environmental preservation efforts along New Jersey’s Delaware Bayshore, and it’s served as a gathering place and convener for resiliency and recovery discussions in the aftermath of Sandy. The group also works to educate people about the region’s culture and rich maritime history through its art gallery, museum, and programs aboard the A.J. Meerwald, a restored oyster-dredging schooner on the National Register of Historic Places.

Why she founded the Bayshore Center: Growing up in Millville, Wren dreamed of eventually leaving Cumberland County and never looking back. She did move away for a while, but it didn’t last for long. “I ended up back in South Jersey and had the opportunity to look at the area through a different lens,” she said.

During her time elsewhere, she worked on a ship and developed a love of the open water. “I couldn’t believe when I got back to the area that we had this legacy of schooners and maritime history,” she recalled. “It’s not something that I was taught in school. It’s not something I connected with while I was there as a youngster, and I really felt kind of robbed of that potential.” Thus was born her effort to restore the Meerwald to serve as a “floating classroom” to reconnect future generations with the past. “There’s not really a place that celebrates these things,” she said. “That’s kind of the void we were trying to fill.”

What attracts her to the Delaware Bayshore: In addition to wanting to educate people about the history and culture of the region, Wren also returned home with a newfound appreciation for the beauty and environmental diversity of an often-overlooked part of New Jersey’s coast and a desire to spread the word about its hiking trails, quaint villages, and secluded beaches.

“We don’t have traffic. We don’t have all the things that are typically thought of as New Jersey icons,” she said. “It’s much more like the eastern shore of Maryland or New England towns that are fishing-based. But most people don’t even know it exists.”

How the region was affected by Sandy: Much of the coastline of the state’s Delaware Bayshore consists of sparsely populated marshes. In Cumberland County — where Wren focuses her work — there are just five, tiny coastal communities, but all were affected badly. “There’s hardly a waterfront property that didn’t have damage,” she said. In addition to homeowners, docks, and businesses also suffered major losses. But due to its small population, the area has received far less attention than flooded beach towns on the Atlantic side, and it’s received far less funding to aid in its recovery. To make matters worse, she notes that Cumberland County was already the poorest county in the state. “They’re really struggling, and they’re not accustomed to asking for help,” she said.

Lasting effects of the storm: Sandy deposited enormous amounts of sand at the mouth of the Maurice River, making navigation difficult for commercial fisherman. Nearly two years after the storm, the river has yet to be dredged to rectify the situation. Some residents continue to wait for funds to repair their homes and bulkheads that were damaged or destroyed. And many business owners are also still struggling to conduct necessary repairs and recoup their losses.

Out of sight, out of mind: “It’s a big deal for someone to drive down from Trenton to Bivalve. It takes a long time,” Wren said, adding that there are plenty of lawmakers who have never even been to the Bayshore. But while the Jersey Shore suffered worse damage from Sandy and is considered a greater asset for the tourism industry, she stresses that residents of Cumberland County shouldn’t be forgotten.

“People in the communities are in great need, but the actual dollars that it would take to help them repair and recover are literally a drop in the bucket compared to the expenditures that are being made up and down the Atlantic Coast in those nine most-impacted counties,” she said. “We’re talking about a handful of communities that need a very, very small investment to make a huge difference.”

Projects she’s working on: Wren says the Bayshore Center has taken the lead in hosting ongoing discussions on topics such as shoreline protection, economic development, tourism, and regional resiliency. They’re also looking at particular issues and challenges facing the area like wastewater treatment and open-space preservation.

Personal life: Wren lives in the Money Island section of Downe Township with her son and her husband, who’s the captain of the A.J. Meerwald. She enjoys hiking, kayaking, and spending time outdoors and along the water. Last summer, she became the first person to complete a 13-mile swim across the Delaware Bay, unassisted and without a wetsuit or life jacket.