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What Now Becomes Of Fort Hancock At Gateway National Recreation Area?


How best can the National Park Service see that historic buildings at Fort Hancock at Gateway National Recreation Area are restored and maintained?

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.


So let the folks who want to restore buildings restore what they can for bed-and-breakfasts. Le the gov't pick up and repair what they can. Finally ask for charity to repair what they can. TOGETHER they ought to save most of buildings right?

We need some buildings with character in America!

Well, JoeAverage is right again that America needs its buildings with character. And, other than the coastal defense installations, the structures at Fort Hancock are pretty wonderful.

Here are my first thoughts about what to do now:

1. First, I challenge the idea that the NPS cannot pursue the funds, and think it is VERY interesting that the statement that NPS can't pursue the funds comes from a PR guy -- Phil Sheridan -- rather than the Regional Director. Wouldn't it be great to hear how someone in authority explains why the NPS has never even ASKED congress for the money?

So, NPS: ask for the money! Break it into bite-sized pieces of around $10 Million each. Make a point of who General Hancock was: one of America's greatest heroes who stood at the point of attack at Gettysburg. Think of how this park that now is thought of mostly as a beach could be with really terrific programs in those splendid structures ! Many educational and environmental institutions with missions consistent with the NPS have already indicated they would like to use portions of these structures. Years ago, when the person in Washington responsible for reviewing partnership proposals came NY-NJ to consider this proposal, her first recommendation was: "forget about the partnership ! It will take too long, be too controversial, and may never happen: ASK FOR THE MONEY ! You can get this funded !" But, the suspicion has always been that Gateway NRA superintendent has always been focused on the part of the park where he lives - New York, and Fort Hancock in New Jersey never gets the priority. The fear being that all the needs in Long Island will then be pushed back. But the NPS always needs to be ready to ask for the money, so when opportunities like the Stimulus Package happen, it can slide this in whole, or in normal years break it up. NPS: Step Up and be a leader !

2. Second, Congressman Pallone needs to step up, too, and not hide behind blaming the NPS all the time. Kurt, despite what you report, above, I do not believe Mr. Pallone asked for even one dime for Fort Hancock. This is something, over all these years, he could have eagerly pushed if he was really interested in avoiding the commercialization of the park. I've checked on Capitol Hill, and nobody there has any knowledge that Mr. Pallone ever asked for ANYTHING for Ft. Hancock when the Stimulus Package was pending. So, whats up with that?? Again, Mr. Pallone blamed the NPS, and that makes no sense at all. If HE is the LEADER, as he likes to present himself, he must LEAD. Check it out, many Members of Congress have made huge improvements in national parks just by pushing the point, and making the NPS and the Congress understand this park is a priority. So, Mr. Pallone: Step Up and be a leader !

3. In the absence of the above two recommendations, I don't think donations will happen. Even if they do, the truth is now is a terrible time to be asking for this kind of development, when Foundations are looking at really critical human needs in our broken economy. Usually, you can get some private sector or State Government matches only if you can get SUBSTANTIAL federal matching money, like the 80 or 90 percent you get with highway money. You could get some highway money for this park, but only for smallish items on the side, not the main even.

So, JoeAverage, as dazzling as your idea would be to put on a show or help out the Fire Fighters, we need a structured plan to get the kind of money you need here.

If not any one of the above??

THEN, Mr. Pallone, the only alternative I see is to try again with a Historic Lease and the commercialization of these structures. The NPS is responsible to fulfill the NPS mission, and the first thing is to preserve the resources, even at the cost of commercialization. Some of your advocates, as even you must have figured out, really just want the beaches all to themselves, and would prefer to destroy these "buildings with character" that JoeAverage AND MANY AMERICANS believe in.

Put up or shut up!

Not far from Sandy Hook/Fort Hancock, the Edison National Historic Park recently reopened after a $12 million restoration funded in part by General Electric and Sony. Obviously both corporations saw the tremendous public relations value of preserving the birthplace of the technologies that drive or influence many of the products they now sell. In a similar vein, is there an opportunity for the NPS or a "friends of" group to solicit restoration funds from defense contractors and other corporations that have had connection to Fort Hancock in the past? Perhaps this isn't an option given restrictions placed on government contractors, but it's certainly worth investigating.

I do agree that it's hard to raise funds for historic properties with so many basic human needs go unanswered. At the same time, is there an opportunity here for job training a la the CCC of the 1930's? Can a job corps be set up to teach people the skills to repair some of the more blatant damage to these structures? These buildings are literally falling apart from neglect. The Park Service has put up "Hard Hat area" signs between the homes on Officers' Row. Porches are rotting away. Window panes are falling out and sashes are dropping.

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