Issues Still In The News 25 Years Later

September 26, 2015
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TRT-firstBy John Burton

When you look back 25 years, when the Two River Times was first launched, challenging the supremacy that daily newspapers had in providing the area’s news, readers had found—as they continue to—stories that mattered to the Two River area.

The front page of that first edition on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 1990, reported on the very serious and the fun, but was totally relevant to those who live and run their businesses here.

There were stories that addressed homelessness in Red Bank; the beach replenishment project, extending the beachfront and repairs to the protective sea wall for portions of Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach that was expected to get underway; a feature story highlighting the long history and traditions of Little Silver’s Sickles Farm; biologists’ efforts to re-introduce striped bass into the Navesink River; and the lead story, announcing Red Bank’s efforts to establish a Special Improvement District (SID) to redevelop and revitalize the borough’s then-flagging business district.

These stories continue and have had reporters return to them over the years as they develop.

The establishment of the Special Improvement District in the words of Red Bank Mayor Pasquale “Pat” Menna “was a big battle,” a contentious struggle as then Democratic Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr., his administration and allies struggled to win support from business- and property owners to go along with the plan. The

idea was to establish a coalition among the business community to work in a public/private partnership to redevelop the area. Red Bank’s downtown commercial district had fallen into an economic torpor—as had many downtowns faced with an economic downturn and increased competition from shopping malls.

The formation of the SID meant establishing an additional assessment on commercial and mixed-use properties in the designated zone; that money would be used to support the efforts. Currently that assessment raises $512,000 annually.

The SID also would have a management and advocacy organization, which eventually became Red Bank RiverCenter, overseen by a volunteer board and a small handful of paid employees.

In retrospect, “I think it is an absolute success,” Menna said. “It started the conversation of how do we reinvent ourselves and deal effectively with retail and services,” and learn how to recruit those desired businesses to the community.

Jay Herman, a principal with Downtown Investors, a commercial real estate development firm located in Red Bank, has been on RiverCenter’s board since its inception. “I think it’s been a terrific success,” he stressed, noting the contributions to the borough’s renaissance over the last quarter century.

In the late 1980s Red Bank had earned the unenviable moniker of “Dead Bank”—where about 1/3 of first floor storefronts were vacant, “And there were no prospects of filling them,” he recalled. Perhaps as much as 80-90 percent of the commercial upper floors of those buildings were not being rented, Herman remembered.

Since then the SID has undertaken streetscape projects through much of the downtown—decorative street lighting, brick paver crosswalks, sidewalk benches, flowerpots with flowers—and continues its aggressive business recruitment efforts and organizing special events, such as the annual holiday tree lighting concert and ceremony, Herman noted.

“Without RiverCenter would Red Bank look like it does now?” Herman asked, answering, “I don’t think so.”

“It’s been a profound change.”

Menna, however, stressed RiverCenter shouldn’t rest on its laurels. The work has to continue, and the business district should look at ways to improve. He would like to see the area continue to grow as a cultural and entertainment mecca instead of relying almost exclusively on restaurants and bars as its destination appeal, to move into a “21st century competition mode,” to stand against the draw of other areas like Long Branch and Asbury Park. “There’s only so much you can eat,” the mayor said.

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Another issue first addressed in 1990 in these pages, but still with us, is homelessness. In her story, writer Bettie H. Penna detailed the lives of some living on the street and in shelters.

Local organizations dealing with the homeless populations today acknowledge it remains but has changed.

“Basically you don’t see them anymore. You don’t see people sleeping at the train station, in doorways,” observed Steve Heisman, executive director of HABcore, a Red Bank-based organization that provides permanent and supportive housing. Today those who find themselves without housing, find temporary shelter, which is more available than when HABcore first started in 1988, or rely on friends and families for a period. Unfortunately, when the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does its annual count of homeless in January, these “hidden homeless” tend not to be counted, Heisman said.

Even given that, however, Heisman said, “It’s definitely decreasing.” But there remain a significant number of people still needing permanent homes in our area, with HABcore having about 500 on its current waiting list.

Gwendolyn Love, executive director of Lunch Break, a soup kitchen, food pantry and social service facilitator in Red Bank, sees it differently. “I don’t see a lot of drastic improvement.”

And while there have been great efforts in the last 25 years to help, “It’s a slow process here in Monmouth County,” she observed, as rents continue to be very expensive in the county.

“I don’t see that the housing issue has really been addressed to satisfaction,” she stressed, with more people who would have previously described themselves as middle class having difficulty making ends meet. “More can certainly be done,” she said.

The future of Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach was in doubt if federal and state entities didn’t undertake projects starting back in the early 1990s and continuing overtime, most recently after Super Storm Sandy. Certainly local officials feel that way as they relate what work to the beaches and the seawall has meant over the years.

William “Jack” Keeler, a lifelong Sea Bright resident and a nearly three-decade borough councilman, believes “I don’t know if Sea Bright could have remained a viable, independent community without the sand project.”

TRT assistant editor Cort Smith back in 1990 explored the projects that were coming to repair the wall and extend the beach by 100 feet.

Prior to that work, Keeler remembered, “Every day the water was coming up to the seawall,” with sections of the beach all but completely washed away. “You can imagine what would happen when we had a nor’easter.”

“In all honesty, in Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach, they were getting to the point they were underwater,” during even moderate storms, offered U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., (D-NJ) whose 6th Congressional District includes the two communities, and was a staunch advocate for the projects.

“If it wasn’t for the beach replenishment projects I would question they (Sea Bright and Monmouth Beach) would even survive,” Pallone said.

The condition had gotten to the point that regular flooding was impacting real estate value, and as the beach dwindled tourism and local businesses felt the pinch, according to Keeler.

Rebuilding the beach and bolstering the seawall offered a much-needed shot in the arm and provided protection. “When you look at a town like Sea Bright, I definitely think it speaks to its success of the program and the necessity to continue it in the future,” offered Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long.

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These projects are about providing protection for upland infrastructure, as opposed to simply providing newly restored beaches for tourists and residents, Pallone wanted to make clear.

And that has worked, maintained Monmouth Beach Mayor Susan Howard.

After Super Storm Sandy, as bad as it was for Monmouth Beach and elsewhere (especially Sea Bright), Ocean Avenue/State Highway 36, a major evacuation artery running through the area, remained usable. That wasn’t the case during the ’92 nor’easter, Howard pointed out.

Sandy “devastated ” the area with about 1/3 of homes taking on water, Howard remembered, adding, “I can’t even image what the devastation would have been had we not had the beach.”

“I think it has made a tremendous difference,” Keeler offered of the beach project.

The last U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replenishment project, running from the north of Sea Bright through much of Monmouth County shoreline, was done a couple of years ago—planned before Sandy but done after the storm.

The Army Corps of Engineers have been replacing the sand on beaches as needed, which has been averaging every six years, Pallone said.

Now the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is undertaking work on the seawall in Sea Bright. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is contributing $2.98 million and the DEP has contributed $8 million. The project will sure up damage done to the wall by Sandy and subsequent storms and will eventually construct a new section in the downtown area, off of the municipal parking lot, where a wall hadn’t been.

For the 2015-2016 winter storm season, a temporary structure will be erected until the permanent one can be built. “I think it’s accurate to say that it would commence sometime in 2016,” Long said.

Editor Ben Van Vliet wondered in 1990 how the 26,000 striped bass fingerlings, released in the Navesink River, were faring. At the time results appeared promising.

Robby Barradale, a fishing boat captain and regular TRT contributor with his “Fish or Cut Bait” column, said he’s seen a lot of fluctuation in that fish population over the years. “We’ve had some outstanding seasons and some not so good,” he said. And there are many variables contributing to it, including water temperature, the amount of forage fish for strippers to eat and even the amount of rainfall affecting the water’s salinity content.

But, “In general,” Barradale observed, “the river sustains a healthy population of striped bass,” with some migrating in and out of the local waters for the seasons and others maintaining permanent residence here.

Barradale offered a little trivia: in 1879, 132 striped bass fingerlings from the Navesink were taken by train across country and released in San Francisco Bay.  There they thrived, so much so in 1882 another 300 from the Shrewsbury River were shipped and released in Suisun Bay, part of the San Francisco Delta system. What that means is “to this day, every striper caught along the West Coast can trace its roots to our own Two Rivers,” Barradale said.

Business, politics, the environment, what’s old remains new and the lifeblood of newspaper copy.



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