By John Burton
ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS – Harbor Commission Chairman Jane Frotton assured residents during the Tuesday, July 10, commission meeting that a proposal to permit a 180-foot three-tier floating casino to operate out of the harbor was not being fast tracked.
Many in the overflow crowd were ready to voice their objections because they feared the proposal would be approved that night.
Frotton read a statement, prepared to assure the crowd that no decision has been made nor would it be made any time in the immediate future, concerning the floating casino.
“There will be no fast track on this decision,” Frotton told the crowd.
While she and commission members attempted to assauge the concerns of most on hand, many audience members still voiced their objections to the proposal.
The proposal calls for a boat to be operated out of the municipal harbor that could carry more than 300 passengers past the 3-mile municipal and state limit to permit them to gamble and drink.
“When gambling came to Atlantic City, it was supposed to make things better,” resident Margaret Moro told the commission. “It only helped the casino owners.
“I would hate to see that happen here,” she said.
Mayor Frederick J. Rast III told The Two River Times™ last week, that he met informally with some of the members of an investor group working with Alvin Shuman, who operates Diamond Casino Cruises, Myrtle Beach, S.C., about possibly operating a boat out of the harbor. Rast said at first blush the proposal sounded like it could be something that would benefit the community.
“In general terms, everything sounds smart, sounds good,” he said. “It could be something nice for the town.”
Based upon that preliminary discussion, Rast said, the harbor could earn $45,000 a year in docking fees; the owners would purchase fuel locally; the light food fare they would offer passengers would be prepared by On The Deck, a restaurant located at the harbor.
Because parking is a sticking point in the borough, there was talk of negotiating with Monmouth County representatives about using the commuter ferry lot in Belford on weekends, when the ferry isn’t in service.
Passengers would then be bused to the boat. Valet parking was another possible idea.
Rast said a casino cruise operation could bring people to the community who would patronize local businesses. “I’m interested in promoting businesses in town,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of businesses in town and they were tickled to death.”
After the principals of Diamond Casino Cruises appeared before the mayor and borough council at a June meeting and gave an informal presentation, the council felt the proposal was worth studying. The governing body then asked the harbor commission, a self-sustaining, municipal-operated utility, to do some research.
While the harbor commission will investigate the proposal, the final decision will rest with the borough council, according to Rast and Borough Administrator Adam Hubeny.
Rast said that during casual conversations around town, residents appeared supportive – especially the seniors. “The senior citizens were elated,” he said.
But those at the commission meeting and others contacted about the proposal saw the plan differently.
The concerns included the effect on the tight parking situation and traffic in the borough’s First Avenue business district and harbor. With the possibility of two trips being operated daily year-round with as many as 300 to 400 passengers, concerns voiced included crime, noise and an overall impact on quality of life in the small community.
“We all want the town to thrive, we want it to succeed,” said Corinna Thuss, a resident and president of the local PTO, who has been active in rallying opposition.
Speaking for the PTO, Thuss said, “It’s not the element that we want.”
Robert Keiser, an East Garfield Avenue resident, recalled how he and his family had spent weekends on their boat in the harbor when a dinner cruise operated out of the marina a while ago.
He contended that sometimes intoxicated disembarking passengers would fight, throw beer bottles and cigarette butts and would be loud and use offensive language. “And that’s what we want?” he asked the commission.
Residents have been worried that this process was on a fast track for approval without sufficient public input. What caused this, some said, was a $5,000 donation for the July 6 fireworks display by Diamond Casino Cruises operator Alvin Shuman, a principal in the project. With that donation Shuman got space on a fireworks promotional flier stating that the Casino Royale – the boat’s proposed name – was “coming soon.”
Frotton, who is also a member of the fireworks fundraising committee, insisted the donation bought Shuman nothing more than space on the handbill. She said it was her decision to accept it and conceded that permitting “coming soon” was “an error in judgment.”
Frotton noted Shuman initially offered a $10,000 contribution, but she and the committee turned that offer down.
After a little more of an hour of public comments, former mayor Helen Marchetti told the crowd: “I lived here all my life. I would never do anything to hurt Atlantic Highlands. I assure you now I would look deep, deep, deep into this before I make a decision.”
Frotton estimated that the work needed do the necessary due diligence would take time and it would be “six months to a year before any decision is made,” she said.
Calls to Shuman, Matthew Howard, another principal, and an attorney representing them were not returned.