A final decision by the National Park Service that ends an agreement to allow commercialization of historic military buildings at Gateway National Recreation Area leaves one question dangling: What now becomes of the steadily deteriorating buildings?
For its part, the National Park Service hopes to find another partner with deep pockets to restore the buildings at Fort Hancock, which lies within the Sandy Hook unit of Gateway.
"The NPS will consider and explore all available options for preserving historic Fort Hancock, including continuing development discussions with Rutgers University and Brookdale Community College for their joint potential development of educational facilities at Fort Hancock, and the NPS will explore other compatible adaptive reuse possibilities for Fort Hancock including using the authority legislated by the Congress to the NPS to enter into another lease agreement with a private entity for park compatible uses to preserve, rehabilitate and adaptively reuse the historic buildings," the agency said this week when it announced the 60-year lease with Sandy Hook Partners, LLC was null and void.
The Park Service's Northeast regional director, Dennis Reidenbach, made that announcement Monday after an independent review determined that the financing commitments made by Sandy Hook Partners were insufficient to cover the scope of the project, which was to restore three dozen Fort Hancock buildings.
The agreement between the Park Service and Sandy Hook Partners and its president, James S. Wassel, had been the bone of contention between the agency and a small non-profit citizen's group that long questioned the propriety of the deal, which, in essence, would lead not just to preservation of the buildings but also a commercial foothold in the NRA. Under the lease, Sandy Hook Partners was to rehabilitate the buildings at Fort Hancock, a long-standing military outpost that has been decaying because the Park Service can't afford to restore and maintain the buildings, and run businesses out of them.
The developer planned to spend $70 million-$90 million on restoring the buildings. Sixteen Officer's Row homes were envisioned as bed-and-breakfast inns. A dorm once used for U.S. troops was proposed to be transformed into classrooms for Rutgers University or perhaps Brookdale Community College. Mess halls, gymnasiums, even the old mule barn and the officer's club also were part of the deal. And the NPS would spend $2.2 million on a new dock so he could ferry conferees over to Fort Hancock from Manhattan.
Now the Park Service is, as they say, back to square one. The estimated cost to rehabilitate the facilities -- some $75 million -- is beyond Gateway's means, according to Phil Sheridan, the assistant regional director of communications for the agency's Northeast office.
A New Jersey congressman, Rep. Frank Pallone, also has been critical of the Park Service's lease with Sandy Hook Partners and at one time called for an investigation into how the agency came to find the arrangement in the best interests of Gateway. The Democrat also has called for economic stimulus funds to be used to rehabilitate the Fort Hancock facilities, but with no success.
On Monday the congressman applauded the decision to cancel the lease with Sandy Hook Partners and said "we can begin to move forward with the restoration of Fort Hancock." Other than echoing the Park Service's comments that it would continue to seek partnerships with universities and colleges, Rep. Pallone did not offer any solutions to the funding woes. A call Tuesday to his communications director, Richard McGrath, was not immediately returned.
How realistic is it to expect non-profit organizations or colleges and universities to come up with the resources needed to revive Fort Hancock? While one building has been restored and maintained for nearly four decades thanks to the New Jersey Marine Sciences Consortium/New Jersey Sea Grant organization, a cooperating partner with the Park Service, even that organization struggles to find the funds needed for regular maintenance. Multiply that by 36 and the ongoing problem seems staggering.