What began in 2000 as a Department of Defense efficiency initiative has become for Monmouth County residents an unnerving and exciting redevelopment project: the remaking of Fort Monmouth.
As a result of the Base Realignment and Closure Act more than 20 years ago, the Army rolled out for Aberdeen, MD last month and took with it a piece of the region's heart and history. It also took an estimated 5,000 jobs, a popular discount grocery store for military families and a lot of local business customers. What it left behind though is 1,126 acres of real estate in one of the most desirable counties in New Jersey. Here Patch gives you an update and some history on Fort Monmouth's road to civilian life.
Who's in charge, and what's the hold up?
As it stands now, the property that spans three municipalities, sits virtually unoccupied behind the brick, steel and barbed wire fences erected when the site was an operational Army installation. Though Army packed its camouflaged bags more than a month ago, it still owns the property and has hired a caretaker workforce to maintain it.
Not your average real estate deal, the sale of Fort Monmouth will occur in pieces and stages with many buyers.The Army is in negotiations for transfer of the property with the local entity charged with its redevelopment, the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority, known as FMERA. Army owns the property, but FMERA will be the one orchestrating the sale and redevelopment.
Plans, set in motion more than five years ago by local and state officials, call for the property to be carved up into individual parcels for lease or sale over the next 20 years. Before any of that can happen, there needs to be a formal agreement between Army and FMERA on the details of the transfer (including how profits will be shared) and approval by the federal government. The negotiation process has proved long and complicated, sometimes requiring redevelopers to meet with up to six Army agencies at once for a single property, and the road to finalizing that agreement has been marred by delays.
In July, the authority's Executive Director Bruce Steadman told Patch that he was confident FMERA would have the agreement by September. That deadline was pushed to Oct. 19 and then pulled off the board of director's agenda again for last-minute changes. "You're never in control of the schedule when there are so many people involved," he said.
"It has been an excrutiating process with our friends at the Army but we are getting close," he told the audience at the October board meeting, adding that he hoped to have the agreement signed in November.
Tinton Falls resident Linda Zucaro faithfully attends FMERA meetings as a citizen and an affordable housing advocate. When she questioned the board about the business plan, which was projected to be done by this summer by Matrix Design Group but as of October was still in draft form, Steadman gave her a smile and said there was no one more anxious than him to have it finished.
"It's like being pregnant for 13 months," he said, "It's time to deliver."
Economically, the losses are local and statewide.
Even before this year, local businesses began to feel the loss as the Army's soldiers and civilians steadily moved out ahead of the Sept. 15 closure. Barbershops, restaurants and hotels reported a drop in customers and revenue.
In a June letter to the DOD, Governor Chris Christie called the closing of the fort a "staggering economic blow to New Jersey." He also linked the commissary to the area's future economic development, saying it would effect 5,000 direct jobs and 15,000 indirect jobs. "The redevelopment of Fort Monmouth," he wrote, "is an important priority for my Administration." Just last week when the governor announced his new strategic plan for state development, he named FMERA as one of the local authorities that the state should partner with for priority growth investment areas.
In the meantime, marketing continues.
Until negotiations with the Army are finalized, FMERA is unable to cut any deals since it doesn't actually have possession of the property yet. However that hasn't stopped the redevelopers from courting investors or prepping properties for sale. As of now FMERA has four properties lined up for quick sales once the agreement is in hand. One of those properties is the Suneagles Golf Course, which the Army is currently leasing to the authority.
Armed with a mission to create jobs, FMERA will have to find a way to rebuild what was once a small city of hi-tech workers, inside a developing residential community. Within the footprint of the fort, the authority will look to locate single and multi-family housing, office space, hi-tech and bio-tech industries, communications companies and research and development businesses. Meetings with potential investors are kept confidential but FMERA officials say they have seen interest from recreational companies, data center companies, bio-tech and hi-tech firms.
Steadman and his staff, made up of employees from the state's Economic Development Authority, regularly give fort tours and host meetings with businesses interested in the property. In the near future the authority will seek to hire a master broker, either a single firm or a team, who have the capability to find buyers, developers and employers in each of the individual markets from across the country and Europe. "They can turn the property over faster and create jobs faster," Steadman said.
A state project on the local level.
That state influence sometimes worries the mayors of Oceanport, Tinton Falls and Eatontown, for whom the project is hyperlocal.
Eatontown's Mayor Gerald Tarantolo said that he and the other mayors are the minorities on the board made up of government agency representatives and the governor’s appointees.
All the members, he said, are "good people" who want to "fill the economic void" that the fort leaves behind. Where they deviate, he said, is on the subtlety between creating jobs and creating jobs that will be beneficial to the towns themselves.
“We also want to see the quality of life maintained,” he said.
"We have three mayors and a freeholder," he said. "We’re the minority and that’s important." Tarantolo is concerned that industries outside of the plan’s scope will approach FMERA and “dangle a carrot” in the form of big money in front of the board, which could sway it to change the 2006 reuse and redevelopment plan. The mayor said he isn't worried about the board locating a giant polluting factory at the fort, but he is uneasy that his local concerns could be out numbered when push comes to shove. “Where does the compromise come in?”
The real estate market, it ain't what it used to be.
This is a particular concern of the local officials when it comes to implementing the redevelopment plan which calls for ambitious projects like a hotel conference center, a large number of single family homes and the sale of most of the fort's properties. When it was drafted the real estate market was strong. "A lot has changed since then," Steadman acknowledged.
Matrix Design Group estimates that with the current economy, 51 percent of the funds for the redevelopment project will come from lease revenue. Today's sluggish market and low prices could make implementing some of the original plans difficult.
FMERA hired Matrix this year to draft the authority's business plan, which is still in draft form. Included in the draft is research on real estate market in the area, which Steadman's staff uses when it looks at how to market and redevelop properties.The staff, he said, takes the research and "tweaks it for reasonability, and the reality of interest we've had."
"The reuse and redevelopment plan is a guideline to help guide us toward the direction of jobs," Steadman said. Some parts of the plan, he said, won't change such as housing. All the housing units allotted to each town, in each category (single family, multi-family) will remain the same. Where they will be located in each town may not.
With every property inside the fort's boundaries Steadman said he and his staff ask, "What is the highest and best use of the property today?"
"We don't want to lose an opportunity to create jobs," he said.