By CAROL GORGA WILLIAMS
Local real estate developer Henry V. Vaccaro has had some ideas for a while about how to address the stalemate between the city and its waterfront redeveloper, Madison Asbury Retail and it seems like Vaccaro and Madison have begun a conversation which could move Convention Hall and Paramount Theater out of checkmate and into “open for business’ some day soon.
Within two weeks of Vaccaro making an initial outreach to Madison, on May 25 he received a text inviting him to the company’s office on Cookman Avenue for a 5:30 pm meeting that same day.
“I attended and to my surprise I was warmly greeted by Amer Hammour, the executive chairman, and Gary Mottola, his associate,” Vaccaro said in a Facebook response.
Mottola is described as president of Madison Marquette, the corporate parent of Madison Asbury Retail.
“A half- hour meeting went on to last two hours,” Vaccaro said. “We had so much in common but this time, we shared it.”
He said in this initial meeting, it was a get to know one another meet and greet. “The first time is a kick-the-tires meeting and we each had a lot of tires.”
Or if you prefer, Vaccaro said “the journey of a million miles starts with a first step. This is a first step on a million-mile journey.”
“On a scale of one to 10, this meeting was a 10,” Vaccaro said, feeling positive and optimistic that committed people would find a way to raise the money to save the buildings, which he estimated might cost $10 million to stabilize and another $20 to $25 million to renovate.”There was nothing negative that was said, nothing negative at all.”
The issue is money and while last year, Madison provided the city with proof it had $30 million in assets, after months of city requests to see such proof, the now shuttered Convention Hall and Paramount Theater remain unsafe and unusable.
“We were hoping they would spend some of it,” Asbury Park Mayor John B. Moor said recently of the $30 million. “If they would take $10 million of that $30 million and spend it on those buildings, we would sign tomorrow.”
Vaccaro recently created a Facebook page called “Save Asbury Park’s History,” following it up with talks about how a non-profit entity could be formed to raise money for much needed repairs of the two boardwalk structures. At the end of the fundraising, the entity could take over management of the two properties – citing the Count Basie Center for the Performing Arts in Red Bank as a model – or could return the buildings to Madison’s management.
Vaccaro quickly created a board of directors and a mission statement and spoke to the mayor about the feasibility of such a solution. Moor said as long as the non-profit entity was set up appropriately, he would have no objection to such an arrangement.
Moor said it is critical for those two buildings to be up and running as soon as possible. He said saltwater intrusion and the oceanfront’s corrosive climate is wreaking havoc on the interior and exterior of the structures. Further, the waterfront effort to brand itself as the Nashville of the northeast is taking hit after hit as the Paramount has had to decline to host a number of musical acts, including some events for the winter’s Light of Day events and the cancellation of the much anticipated Ringo Starr concert, now moved to the Count Basie center.
In the interim, the city served Madison with four notices of default.
City and nearby residents also want to help, Vaccaro. said”I’ve got people coming out of the woodwork wanting to help.”
Vaccaro said he has been invited to submit a list of common areas of interest for Hammour to review. The list is to be drawn up this week, Vaccaro said.
He said the two men liked his ideas for the Convention Hall complex, the casino and the power plant. Vaccaro also wants to feature gondolas on Wesley Lake to travel beneath the two bridges whose design is reminiscent of those in Venice, he said. People could use the gondolas to travel to a rooftop restaurant, he said. Vaccaro also wants to expand seating at The Paramount.
They discussed funding, including seeking state grant funding but both sides agreed that if a grant was secured, they would have to spend money administering the grant. “We talked about what has to be done. They spend a million dollars a year on Convention Hall to stabilize it,” which is why heavy equipment currently is on site.
“It needs a lot of work, more than he expected,” Vaccaro said.
In November, Madison Asbury Retail submitted the requested certification to the city that the company had a $30 million net worth and earlier this spring, the redeveloper furnished an updated report of its plans to stabilize the two historic structures and a series of its other boardwalk properties.