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Polar Bears in hot water

The annual New Year’s swim at Coney Island used to be only about jumping into the frigid ocean — but now, the Polar Bear Club is finding itself in uncomfortably hot water for accepting a donation from Thor Equities, the mega-bucks developer that wants to create a Vegas-style amusement and residential district along the Boardwalk.

The 104-year-old club was pilloried on a Coney Island Internet message board last week for letting the developer sponsor the famed New Year’s Day swim.

“Thor has proven nothing but being an opportunist when it suits them, and they are using [the Polar Bear Club] just like they tried to attach their name to the Mermaid Parade,” one poster ranted. “It’s transparent, and I’m sorry, but I’ve lost respect for the Polar Bear Club.”

Many people might be surprised by the partnership forged between Thor and the club, because last year, the Mermaid Parade — Coney Island’s other great tradition — became a politically charged event that featured Polar Bears growling in the anti-Thor procession.

But now, club President Lou Scarcella said he’s made peace with Thor Equities because the company has jettisoned the idea of having condos inside Coney’s historic amusement area.

“We are definitely not sellouts,” Scarcella told The Brooklyn Paper. “If Thor wants to help, I say fantastic.”

Indeed, other opponents of Thor’s development agenda think the Internet uproar is overblown.

“A charitable donation should always be encouraged,” said Dick Zigun, the unofficial mayor of Coney Island and a frequent critic of Thor’s vision.

This year’s swim is a charity event for Camp Sunshine, a fund for children with life-threatening illnesses. Thor is donating $2,000 in all.

It’s not the first time the Bears have made headlines for something other than their bizarre winter-bathing ritual. Last year, the club welcomed Jimmy Dean — the sausage maker — as an unlikely sponsor.

The reason? Local merchants haven’t ponied up.

“I have gotten very little help from the largest restaurants and concession owners on the Boardwalk,” said Scarcella. The reason could be frugality — or it could simply be that most Coney businesses close up for the winter, which is Scarcella’s prime recreation time.

The arguments about money are a symbol of the changing times on the borough’s sandy peninsula. The Polar Bear Club began more than 100 years ago — and the Jan. 1 dip into the frigid Atlantic remains a boisterous affair that attracts first-timers and old-timers.

A new era began about five years ago when the club got into the fundraising racket and started donating money to charity in conjunction with the swim.

In addition to Jimmy Dean, this year Reebok will provide official gear, like sweatshirts, to the shivering bodies, in addition to a charitable contribution.

Despite the corporate sponsorship, anyone can still show up for the 1 pm plunge, but participants will have to pre-register — and amass $100 in charity pledges — if they want to be a part of the sausage-and-sweatshirt camaraderie.

For info about the 2008 swim, visit: www.polarbearclub.org

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