It was a bleak rainy day as I wandered Fort Hancock to find the former headquarters of the man once consecrated by the Park Service to rehabilitate the Fort. The consecratee, James Wassel, occupied Building 26 rent free for several years while scrambling to raise a promised $72 to $90 million – the numbers bounced about like rubber balls -- to rehab 36 Fort buildings.
After choosing Wassel as its developer, the Park Service stopped their minuscule-to-non-existent “maintenance” of other Fort structures. But nothing happened. Businesses, banks, even “vulture” lenders specializing in distressed projects, wouldn’t touch his plan. And Wassel, who should have had the bulk of his funding when he applied for the project, was coddled by the Park Service for 10 years until it finally cancelled his quasi-contract in October, 2009.
But Wassel wasn’t dead. He had previously “cherry picked” three Fort buildings with an under-the-table lease in 2007 from an acquiescent Park Service, which admitted it wanted to keep him afloat. Two buildings, the chapel and the old Army/Park Service headquarters, had been more-or-less maintained, while the third, the theater, had been rehabbed earlier by the Sandy Hook Foundation. Wassel’s improvements were mostly “fixer-uppers,” much like any homeowner’s repairs. But in November, 2010, the Park Service declared him in default of his “sweetheart” contract, and with a surprising twist of the knife, said it changed the locks.
On the bleak day I roamed the Fort, just two days after Wassel’s demise, his once rent-free, taxpayer-subsidized Building 26 looked even bleaker.
Peering through a dirt-encrusted basement window, I saw trash scattered about. In contrast, when N.J. Friends of Clearwater had a summer lease on Building 11, they cleaned and painted their basement. Their idea of rehab -- sweat equity -- was alien to Park Service managers, so they threw Clearwater out a decade ago and gave Wassel the well-maintained building.
My attempt to access Building 26’s front porch to peek inside was barred by two overgrown evergreens. Just as well. The steps’ pock-marked appearance suggested they were rotted, and a collapsed section of porch railing and rotting porch beams confirmed my suspicions. Windows and the porch ceiling were unpainted and, in places, trim was falling off. The unpainted rotting and rusting eaves and fascia had several gaping holes. Some storm windows were not closed, exposing the wood sash to the weather. I thought, “A wonderful advertisement for Fort Hancock’s ‘master redeveloper.’” In contrast, Clearwater’s members were always scraping and painting Building 11, replacing trim, plastering, fixing windows. Then, nothing leaked. Today, 10 years after being given to Wassel, Building 11 is a disgraceful shambles.
I couldn’t evaluate Wassel’s renovations inside Building 26. The blinds were drawn. But a second-floor window framed a dead potted plant -- an apt metaphor for the Park Service’s destructive attempt to privatize and commercialize Fort Hancock.
Other Fort buildings suffered a worse fate. Signs on Officers’ Row warn “Danger: Hard Hat Zone” and “Danger: Falling Objects” as buildings are literally falling apart. And a small sign blowing in the wind by Wassel’s decrepit-looking headquarters announced, “For access to this building, call the Superintendent’s Office.” Make sure your life insurance is up to date and watch where you step.
Mr. Moffatt joined the Clearwater organization after it was evicted from Fort Hancock.