By John Burton
FORT HANCOCK – No one disputes the condition of most of the structures at Fort Hancock: they are aging, deteriorating and maybe precariously close to the point of no return.
But, various groups have long debated what should be done to preserve them, some at great odds with each other.
The issue is again being discussed and addressed by a federal volunteer committee charged with soliciting options and formulating a plan for the future.
The U.S. Department of the Interior last year formed the Fort Hancock 21st Century Advisory Committee under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). The committee is currently working on language for drafting a request for expression of interest (RFEI) “to get an idea if anyone – nonprofits, organizations or individuals – have interest in helping the park do an adaptive reuse of the buildings,” said Gerald Glaser, co-chair of the fort committee.
Glaser hopes that process will be completed with the scheduled Aug. 2 work session at the fort’s chapel – then the real work of finding partners will begin in earnest.
Fort Hancock, a former U.S. Army installation, dates back to the late 1800s. It is situated on the northern tip of Gateway National Recreation Area at Sandy Hook and has been designated as a Registered National Landmark. Many have been advocating to preserve it because of its historical significance. Since 1971, when the Gateway Recreational Areas were established by the U.S. Congress, the site has been the responsibility of the National Park Service.
There are about a dozen tenants leasing buildings at the fort, including environmental groups Clean Ocean Action, American Littoral Society and the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium. The U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the James Howard Maritime Laboratory and Marine Academy of Science and Technology (M.A.S.T.) are also located there though the school, which has been closed and holding classes at another location since Super Storm Sandy, is expected to reopen in September.
Those organizations have done some renovations for their buildings. The Sea Grant Consortium, which uses former enlisted men’s quarters, has spent about $1.2 million renovating the structure, Executive Director Claire Antonucci said.
But for many of the buildings, mostly built between 1895-1905, time has not been kind. NPS officials have maintained over the years that federal money was just not available to fix them up.
“They need work, that would be my assessment,” said Suzanne McCarthy, acting superintendent of Gateway National Recreational Center.
NPS has labeled the buildings as in “fair to poor condition,” she said.
A look at the buildings, especially those along Officers Row, show faded and peeling paint and sealed windows. The front porch floors bow and porch roofs, braced by wood beams anchored in the ground, sag.
“They’re still standing,” McCarthy said. “There are a number of buildings that have potential with the right ideas and the right people.
“We don’t have any major investment available for any of the buildings,” McCarthy said.
Long-term hope for saving them rests with the committee’s work, she said.
The 20-member committee, comprised of local officials and people from business, education, science and cultural communities, have two years to consider proposals and forward a recommendation as to what should be done to renovate and preserve the 36 buildings.
“Time is of the essence” to save the structures, said Betsy Barrett, president of the Sandy Hook Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to preserving Sandy Hook.
“If this doesn’t work now, I think everybody agrees this could be the end of (the buildings). They will be beyond salvageable,” Barrett said.
“I don’t think the window of opportunity is going to last too much longer,” agreed McCarthy. “It’s not something that’s simple or easy, because, if it was, it would have happened by now.”
McCarthy is hopeful that the committee will meet the challenge.
“I am very optimistic,” said Glaser, the committee co-chair. “We’re wide open to ideas.”
As to what the plan should include could become an issue. More than 10 years ago, a NPS plan to enter into an agreement with a private developer to renovate the buildings and then lease them out for a mix of not-for-profit and for-profit uses became snarled in controversy and lawsuits from those who objected to what they saw as commercialization of public parkland. After years of court hearings and acrimony, the NPS eventually voided the agreement when the developer failed to obtain the necessary private financing to get the project off the ground.
“Ideally, we’d like to see more non-profits come out here, more educational programs,” said Pat Coren, business manager for the American Littoral Society. “I really don’t want to see Ferris wheels out here.”
“There’s no easy fix or answer,” Antonucci said. But, she hopes for something “that would preserve at least some of the historic structures out here while being mindful of the natural resources.”
Glaser believes that “Sandy Hook and Fort Hancock would be well suited to a mixture of educational uses, nonprofit institutions and some for-profits that could take advantage of the location.”
George Moffatt, an Oceanport resident who was a board member of Save Sandy Hook, the now defunct group that fought the last proposal, said, “There’s less chance of using those buildings now than 10 years ago because of the continued neglect on the part of the park service.”
The buildings have continued to deteriorate over the past decade and anyone coming in would have to renovate the building to the strict – and possibly pricey – specifications for historic buildings as established by the Department of the Interior, he said.
“Who’s going to use those buildings anyway? Maybe 25 years ago, but today? Give me a break,” he said.