Each year, two million people visit the beaches at Sandy Hook, a unit of Gateway National Recreation Area. Yet at the northern tip of Sandy Hook, near its famous lighthouse, sits a historic treasure, crumbling away.
From 1898 to 1974, Fort Hancock guarded New York Harbor. Its yellow brick buildings, dating from the early 1900s, were meant to rival the Presidio in San Francisco in their beauty, and they still do. The view alone is priceless.
Today Fort Hancock is under attack by the forces of time and weather. A look at the video on our website shows that most of the buildings are empty and in disrepair.
Gateway and our partners have been able to save a few buildings. For example, the New Jersey Sea Grant Consortium did a spectacular job restoring an old Army barracks into an office and education facility. However, many other buildings remain unused and unrestored.
Fixing a single one of these beautiful old buildings can cost hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. The National Park Service has more than 30 useable buildings that it hopes to preserve. In today’s economy, the National Park Service and America’s taxpayers cannot afford to restore those buildings alone. Public-private partnerships can do what the National Park Service alone cannot.
So, how do we save these wonderful buildings from America’s past? In January, Gateway and National Park Service staff met with a variety of people representing several organizations and groups. (You can see the general list of attendees on our website). This was one of many meetings to gather information, not to decide policy. That dialogue continued at two open houses in February. More than 140 people discussed their vision of Fort Hancock with National Park Service planners and offered comments in person or online.
The National Park Service has a long history with public-private partnerships preserving historic structures and providing amenities. It is hard to imagine Grand Canyon or Yellowstone without hotels, lodges and restaurants—each of which represents private investment in public facilities.
At Gateway, partnerships have not only restored buildings but have often improved public access. Dilapidated buildings that were once closed for public safety have reopened with new purpose. The historic airplane hangar at Gateway’s Floyd Bennett Field now houses the Aviator Sports Complex, where more than 150,000 visitors enjoyed recreational activities last year. The Post Theater at Fort Hancock offers a new cultural institution for local theater.
However, what works at Yellowstone may not work in Monmouth County, New Jersey. So, Gateway needs help from the experts in the local community: you. Fort Hancock can survive, even flourish, but only if the local community and the National Park Service keep talking to each other.
There are also some lessons we can draw from the debates of the past.
First, we will not compromise the peace and serenity of Sandy Hook itself. Fort Hancock can flourish without disturbing Sandy Hook’s beaches and wildlife habitats.
Second, we do not need to build a single new building. Gateway wants to preserve the historic buildings that we already have, not add to the list of buildings that need to be fixed and maintained.
Third, ongoing dialogue with the local community is essential. We may not always agree on the details, but let us at least agree on the goals.
Fort Hancock deserves a new lease on life, and its future is in our collective hands. How can Fort Hancock be preserved, serve the needs of the local community and not be a burden on taxpayers? Let’s continue to talk and listen.
Linda Canzanelli is the superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area.