Coaster File Photo
Frank Cretella, the owner of a hospitality business, has purchased an Asbury Park liquor license he would like to activate at the heating plant at the south end of the Asbury Park boardwalk.
By CAROL GORGA WILLIAMS
Frank Cretella is no stranger to Asbury Park. He is no stranger to friends of Asbury Park and he is no stranger to those who recognize that effective waterfront redevelopment needs to incorporate the city’s iconic history to be true to all that went into building the city by the sea.
In 2000, Cretella was watching a late-night news report about how Domenic Santana had purchased the Stone Pony, a beloved music venue in the city.. Santana was a friend, Cretella recalled. And it is not unusual among some people to want to help friends. Cretella became a one-third partner in the Pony.
It was the beginning of a love affair. And when Cretella falls in love, he falls. He and his wife Jeanne met when they were both 12 years old: the start of four decades and counting.
“I fell in love with Asbury Park,’ said Cretella who built some of the bar space in The Stone Pony during the 2000 renovation. He can be the boss. Or he can wield a hammer. Sometimes, he does both. So for more than 20 years, he said, Asbury Park ” became my sanctuary. I always wished to do more here.”
Even after The Stone Pony was sold to Asbury Partners in 2003 – the owners could not comply with the requirements of the newly adopted waterfront master plan, he did not give up. The redevelopment now included satisfying a kind of holy trinity: – including Madison Marquette, which also is known as Madison Asbury Retail and iStar, the master redeveloper of a 35-acre parcel that hugs the city’s waterfront.
In March, iStar said it planned to invest $300 million into the project. That does not include Cretella’s $30 million, which he is hoping to use toward the preservation and renovation of the former heating plant, the Casino and Carousel buildings and the arcade. Cretella already controls a key liquor license, acquired recently from the Elks organization which was located in the city.
Cretella’s plans are not of recent vintage. He said he first approached controlling redevelopers with a proposal eight years ago. It only came to the forefront – the front stage – so to speak – when during a City Council hearing regarding the transfer and sale of the liquor license – a lawyer let slip the license would be used in association with a remade heating plant.
The City Council did a double take. It seems that these plans were never discussed with officials who serve as the city’s redevelopment agency.
Mayor John B. Moor – like other members of the City Council – once more expressed dismay about Madison’s communication skills or lack thereof. The stalemate has produced tension sufficient enough for the council to hold Madison in default on four key components of its agreement with the city. Two of those were satisfied and the default notices were withdrawn but two remain, the mayor said. City Manager Donna M. Veniero said several days after the liquor license disclosure that city officials remained in the dark about the potential project, even though officials often try to contact Madison Marquette officials, without much success.
Moor said Cretella’s project sounds promising but municipal hands are tied without action by Madison. For example, the mayor said he has been trying for months to set up a conversation with Amer Hammour, who according to his LinkedIn account is Madison Marquette’s executive chairman. He founded the Washington, D.C.- based company in 1992. Hammour told the mayor that they would talk after the wedding of Hammour’s son, which was Aug. 1. The mayor is still waiting.
“We are still waiting for replies we sent to Mr. Hammour going back to July, August and September,” Moor said. “They keep telling us they are waiting for the state – The EDA (Economic Development Authority) to answer them” about project financing.”
The longer the silence goes on, the more concerned city officials become about the potential for another Surfside, he said, referring to a 2021 collapse of a Florida condominium that claimed 98 lives and injured another 11 people. A Miami Herald investigation found the collapse was due in part to long-term neglect of maintenance issues,
While officials for Madison Marquette could not be reached for comment for this story, the mayor’s experience provides a transition to the hopes of local developer Henry Vaccaro who approached the company some months back with a plan to turn redevelopment of the deteriorating Convention Hall and Paramount Theater into a non-profit entity. If Vaccaro – who was the original and award-winning redeveloper of the Berkeley Carteret hotel – now called The Berkeley – receives the go-ahead, it could potentially save the structures, which are closed to the public because of structural issues. Officials say the salt air and salt-water intrusion are claiming the iconic structures and if Madison would seal the structures until renovation and preservation could be completed, any more loss could be averted.
The Paramount has been forced to turn concerts away including that of Ringo Starr’s this summer. Instead, The Count Basic Center for the Arts – has been reaping the benefits of the shuttering of the Asbury Park stage.
Vaccaro enthusiastically has reported that he secured a promise to meet with company officials to present his plan “after Labor Day.” No date certain is yet set but Vaccaro remains open to the possibility officials want to hear his plan, which is available in more detail on his Facebook page, “Save Asbury Park’s History.”
Although Cretella and Vaccaro do not know each other – they know of each other – and Cretella – like the mayor – thinks Vaccaro’s plan has merit.
“I’m not part of it but it really needs some outside grants to get it stabilized and salvaged,” Cretella said of Convention Hall and the Paramount. “You are never going to get private money” to invest in those projects. But a non-profit could get it done, he suggested.
Cretella’s plan does not come out of left field.
“This is not a new deal” with Madison Marquette, Cretella said. Madison Marquette has engaged the firm ASI to analyze Cretella’s proposal and the Jersey City native expects to know the results of that review within 30 days. Cretella expects the review is necessary to satisfy the project’s financiers rather than because the redeveloper has questions about the proposal’s efficacy.
Cretella first became attracted to the heating plant because it is “so different” and different is in Cretella’s wheelhouse. He has made a career of preserving historic buildings. Despite the conditions of the 1932 facility which he last toured eight years ago- Cretella was on board. Soon, the arcade and Casino and Carousel buildings were part of the proposal.
“The Carousel building and the Casino will be restaurants and bars,” Cretella said. “We’re trying to activate the roof – the flat part of the roof. The (heating) plant will be event space. We are trying to activate – raise the roof on the arcade. The arcade would have studio and gallery space for smaller shows…There would be a different concept for the (heating) steam plant.”
According to his profile on LinkedIn, Cretella describes extensive real estate holdings under his company Landmark Venues, a hospitality business that owns and operates venues, boutique hotels and restaurants throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Cretellas launched their hospitality careers with their first Garden State property in 2001. Before that, they were in the Empire State, owning and operating the Boat House in Central Park, Lundy’s in Brooklyn, NY., a seafood restaurant and American Park, a Battery Park venue with direct views of the Statue of Liberty.
Their Garden State properties include Liberty House, Hudson House, Stone House, Ryland Inn, Felina, Village Hall, Mercer Boathouse and The View. Across the Delaware River, in Pennsylvania, Landmark owns a hotel in New Hope as well as The Logan Inn including Ferry & Main and G&P Bar & Whiskey Lounge. Also, Landmark owns The Mansion Inn (Anzu Asian), and The Landing and three distinct venues on the Elkins Estate property: Elstowe Manor, Chelten House and The Stable. The recently acquired Durham Springs will be an event center, according to the biography.
“I am aware of what it takes,” he said.