Blood sport Elwell defends recreation center after activists raise questions

Even though groundbreaking for the Secaucus recreation center took place almost 13 months ago, three town activists asked questions and made complaints about the proposed facility at Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting.

The Recreation Center, which was supposed to open in February, has been pushed back several months due to environmental cleanup. Officials say it will open to the public this spring. The center on Koelle Blvd. has been on the agenda at several Secaucus Town Council meetings, and in November, the council passed an ordinance to amend a bond to pay for it from $9 million to $10 million.

This past Tuesday, no ordinances related to the recreation center were introduced or approved at the Town Council meeting. Nevertheless, it turned out to be the main topic of discussion.

Activsts’ concerns ranged from construction costs to membership requirements.

Laundry list of questions, few details known “Secaucus is building a multi-million dollar recreational facility for either $9 million, $10 million, or $12 million. I don’t know,” said Frank MacCormack, a regular council-watcher, Tuesday night as he prepared to ask the first in a very long list of questions. “Does anyone on the council have an established figure on what it’s going to cost to build this facility?” “We don’t have any exact numbers here,” Mayor Dennis Elwell responded. “If you want them, we can get them for you.”

Town Administrator David Drumeler said he is currently working on numbers, and will release them publicly in the near future. “We have nothing to hide here,” he said. The facility is being funded by a variety of sources.

Five million dollars is coming from developer David Halpern of Atlantic Realty. When Halpern decided to build the Transit Village, a residential project in Secaucus, Rutgers University did an impact study, which determined that the dollar value of the development’s impact would be $5 million. The council then voted to allocate that money to the construction of the recreation facility.

Tuesday, MacCormack said he found the developer’s involvement in the project to be offensive. He said he does not believe the town should take money from a developer. Elwell responded that it was a good thing.

“It’s the first time ever that a developer came into Secaucus to build and make money here and actually gave something back,” Elwell said. “Parents have been talking in this town for years about having a pool so our high school can have a swim team. This was an opportunity for us.”

The $5 million from Atlantic Realty is to be paid to the town over time.

In addition to money from the developer, the town has also allocated some revenue generated from a billboard site to the project. The billboard account currently has between $43,000 and $48,000 in it, Drumeler said last week.

Finally, the council passed a $9 million bond ordinance for the center last year, which was upped to $10 million in November because of increased costs associated with cleaning up the land on which the facility is being built.

Secaucus taxpayers will be paying “nothing, or almost nothing, for the recreation center,” Elwell said at the meeting.

A skeptical MacCormack then asked about costs to operate the facility once it is built. “What will be the revenue stream to support this facility?” he asked. “Is this thing going to support itself, or are the taxpayers going to have to pay?”

“I don’t want to come out with that right now because we don’t have all the details,” the mayor responded. He did say that the council is exploring the possibility of placing a cell phone tower near the center to defray operating costs.

In addition, the center will also sell individual and family memberships, although membership rates have not been worked out.

How it will operate However, in the fall 2006 edition of Secaucus Scene, Town Hall’s newsletter, the mayor estimated that recreation center membership would be “about one-third the cost of a typical health club membership.”

Memberships, another of MacCormacks’ concerns, will only be open to Secaucus residents at first. If it appears that there aren’t enough residents joining, Elwell stated that the council might consider selling membership to Secaucus workers who live elsewhere since “their employers pay taxes here, too.”

Such a move would have to be approved by the council, the mayor said.

Hours of operation also have not been finalized yet. Back in 2006 in Secaucus Scene, Elwell stated that tentative hours of operation would be 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. After MacCormack was done, resident Sam Maffei stood and lent support to the chorus.

“It seems you went headfirst into this thing and it really wasn’t enough planning,” Maffei said. “You need to sit down with someone with a knowledge of this type of operation as to what will take.”

Elwell pointed out that, “Our Board of Education approved this plan and they loved it.”

“Oh, they’d approve anything!” MacCormack shot back.

Meanwhile, former Board of Education member Tom Troyer made comments about school projects that had opened on time back when he was involved, unlike the town’s recreation center.

Reason for delays Elwell said the project’s opening was delayed to finish environmental work.

The facility’s site had once been a dumping ground for the Department of Public Works, which used the location for large, heavy items picked up from households, including washers, dryers, and dishwashers.

Soil samples taken from the site early last year showed high levels of street asphalt, which had to be safely removed and discarded before construction could move forward. This process, according to mayor, took a few extra months to complete.

Lone voice Periodically throughout the meeting, Elwell – in front of a mostly senior audience – did his best to talk up “senior water aerobics,” which will presumably be offered at the center.

Still, it’s clear the center’s target users are high school athletes, families with small children, and young adults – community members typically absent from council meetings. With their voices missing from the discussion, the recreational center took a beating.

Elwell was the center’s main defender in the room. The five councilmen present for the meeting kept relatively silent during the discussion. Councilman Michael Gonnelli was on vacation.

The Recreation Center received unanimous council support when it was approved in October 2006. Two councilmen, Gary Jeffas and Gonnelli, were not part of the 2006 council that approved the center. The remaining four – Deputy Mayor John Riley, John Shinnick, Richard Kane, and John Bueckner – were. Shinnick, Kane, and Bueckner all mention their involvement in coaching and youth athletics on their council biographies.

When finished, the center will have an Olympic-sized pool with a spectator section that will allow parents and families to watch swim meets; an indoor running track that will enable runner and power walkers to exercise even when the weather outdoors is bad; and a high school regulation gym big enough to accommodate two basketball games simultaneously.

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