By John Burton
SANDY HOOK – In what is expected to be a two- or three-year process, a citizens’ committee studying the future of Fort Hancock and its historic structures has begun its work.
The National Park Service (NPS) has convened a 20-member committee from a variety of fields to look at the possible future use and preservation of 38 structures at the former military installation, located at the northern tip of Gateway National Recreation Area at Sandy Hook.
Many of the location’s structures, most of them more than a century old, have been deteriorating. “Some of these buildings, it may be too late to save already,” NPS spokesman John Harlan Warren said.
Warren said Linda Canzanelli, superintendent for Gateway recreation areas, told the committee as they gathered for the first time last week it was “the last best chance to save Fort Hancock.”
“I think that sums it up quite nicely,” Warren said.
Warren also acknowledged “There will be little or no NPS money for the long-term preservation.”
Among the committee members is Lynda Rose, president and chief operating officer of the Eastern Monmouth Area Chamber of Commerce. Rose said, while it was “way too soon” to be talking about possible strategies for the location’s future, “there are some wonderful ideas out there.”
Eventually, “like any good strategy session, we’ll put everything on the table and then talk about what’s possible, what’s not possible and why isn’t it possible,” Rose said.
Another committee member, Mary Eileen Fouratt, executive director of the Monmouth County Arts Council, the arts education and advocacy organization headquartered in Red Bank, is looking to “see where the possibilities are.
“I just think it is a beautiful place and has such a great history,” Fouratt said, “I’d like to see something happen other than buildings falling down.”
Rose said that as a chamber of commerce president she would “like to see some hotels out there. I’d like to see some B and Bs out there.” But, she would also like to see arts venues and educational components and all should be accomplished while keeping with the park’s natural beauty and environment in mind.
“There are ways to do things: wrong ways and right ways,” she said.
While the committee is the first convened by the park service under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (FACA) to investigate ways to rehabilitate the former Army fort’s structures, it is not the first time the NPS has tried to work out a strategy to preserve them by way of a public/private partnership.
The park service struck a deal with a private developer in 1999 to renovate the buildings that the developer then would lease out for a variety of for-profit and not-for-profit uses. The plan became quite controversial. A bitter battle lasted for about 10 years with opponents going to federal court to block the plan, alleging it would allow for the commercialization of parkland intended for the public’s recreational use. Proponents, including the park service, contended the plan was a means of preserving a historic resource without relying on taxpayer dollars.
The park service eventually canceled the agreement when the developer failed to obtain the necessary financial backing to move the project forward. Only two buildings were renovated.
Rose said the public/private partnership “can be done,” pointing to other national park areas, including The Presidio and Cavallo Point, located in Northern California. Those locations are “very respectful of the community, of the property and more important, the history,” of the sites, she said.
During the committee’s first meeting last week at the Ocean Place Resort in Long Branch, George Moffatt offered a different view. “The only use for those buildings should be educational and recreational,” he said.
Moffatt was a board member of Save Sandy Hook, the group that had opposed the park service’s plan to work with the developer.
Prior to Super Storm Sandy – which resulted in the park being temporarily closed due to damage – fort buildings were used by educational, nonprofit and government entities. While sections of the recreation area sustained considerable storm damage, Fort Hancock managed to escape the worst of it.
Work to fix and rehabilitate the park is ongoing, but major projects, including the repair of the sewerage system, will have to wait until money from the Sandy relief bill, signed Tuesday night by President Obama, makes its way through the funding system, Warren said.
Committee members, who are volunteers with experience in science, real estate, cultural arts, education and local and county government, are expected to meet four to six times a year during the next two to three years to devise recommendations for the site.