Thoughts & Views: Don’t gamble on park’s future

Okay, Gov. Christie, Assemblyman Prieto and Sen. Sweeney, I call your collective bluffs. It’s time to put all your cards on the table.

Look, it’s practically a done deal … a casino in Liberty State Park in Jersey City.

And maybe another gaming hall in the Hackensack Meadowlands. After all, you guys emptied out the Izod, so it’s ready for a new customer, right?

You marked the deck by adding 11th hour amendments to the Sarlo bill that pitched the merger of the N.J. Meadowlands Commission with the N.J. Sports & Exposition Authority.

One of those last-minute changes inserted into the final version of the bill – recently signed by the governor – gives the new state creature (the Meadowlands Regional Commission) the potential to alter the fate of the 1,200 acre passive park, which lies just 2,000 feet from the Statue of Liberty.

As the bill states, that commission can “evaluate, approve and implement any plan or plans for the further preservation, development, enhancement or improvement of Liberty State Park.”

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop was quoted as insisting that allegedly, legislative protections will be put in place – at some unknown time – to secure the park in “its pristine condition.”

But civic activists like the Friends of Liberty State Park, led by Sam Pesin – whose father, the late Morris Pesin, is credited with spearheading the creation of the park in June 1976 – are skeptical of the state’s motives, suspecting that some form of privatization is contemplated to squeeze revenues from a protected natural site.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has reported losing money in its operation of the park, which has 300 acres accessible to the public but which derives revenue from leases to two upscale restaurants and a 500- slip marina and is home to the privately-run Liberty Science Center.

So, as The Record has reported, DEP is paying the nonprofit New Jersey Future planning group $120,000 to come up with options for development opportunities within the park and the company head was quoted as saying that the study is not targeting environmentally sensitive areas and is not recommending “50-story” high-rises or casinos.

But neither New Jersey Future nor DEP will release the report.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the state has eyed private development for the waterfront park with its grand views of New York Harbor, the Manhattan skyline and other points of interest.

In fact, not long after the park was opened there were proposals for a theme/amusement park, golf course and residential condominiums.

Ultimately, a PGA-sanctioned course was developed outside the park’s boundaries, as was a stock car racing course. And, thus far, the park’s open space area which fronts on the Hudson River, has remained, as has the old historic Central Railroad Terminal at the park’s north end. Ferries depart from the park to Liberty Island and Ellis Island. There are also paths along the river for walking and biking. And there’s a picnic area for families.

On hot summer days, the ample parking lots at the park’s southern end are often filled with the cars of residents and tourists who choose not to fight the traffic headed down to the Jersey shore.

Still, who knows how long the preservationists can fight off potential plundering of one of the few remaining green riverfront treasures left to ordinary mortals like you and me.

Should we trust that there are enough tree huggers among those that control our natural resources who will take someone like Teddy Roosevelt as their guide? I’d like to think so.

Here’s a thought: The folks in charge now can’t even manage to maintain a small, simple privately-operated concession stand at the park. If they can’t even do that, how the heck are they going to successfully secure and take care of a major revenue producer?

– Ron Leir 

The Observer Staff