From the minute you walk in the back door to the Eighth Street Head Start site and climb the stairs, you hear the voices – happy, chattering, laughing children’s voices – filtering down from the play area above.
Normally, you might find these kids engaged in some game or lesson, but on Sept. 24, they had some special guests, including Hambo Tony, the horse mascot, and the management of Winners Bayonne, the city’s newest sports bar and off-track wagering facility. They had come to visit and deliver the first batch of backpacks that they had donated. Boy Scout Alex Gill had organized a campaign to fill.
Instead of playing with toys, these kids sat opening their backpacks, giggling over the contents that included pencils and notepads and other school supplies they needed. Winners Bayonne and its sister property, Meadowlands Racetrack, had donated 200 Hambletonian-themed backpacks to the Head Start program through Gill’s service project to become an Eagle Scout.
Head Start is a federal program launched in 1965 in an attempt to break the cycle of poverty by providing pre-school children from low-income families with a comprehensive program to meet their emotional, social, health, nutritional and psychological needs.
Along with its early childhood education program, Head Start kids receive breakfast and lunch. Started as one of the first programs in the nation in 1965, Bayonne Head Start shifted from location to location for many of its early years, and eventually developed three permanent sites to accommodate 160 children.
“These are some of the neediest children in the city,” said Ana Quintela, executive director of the Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation, which oversees Head Start in Bayonne.
Winners Bayonne, located at 400 Route 440 North, opened to the public on July 17. The venue is the first off-track wagering facility to be built and operated by Jeff Gural’s New Meadowlands Racetrack LLC.
Ironically, some of the contents in the backpacks had a New York Yankees logo; Robert Kowalski, director of Winners Bayonne spent ten years in the New York Mets organization, before moving onto Las Vegas where he ran two casinos for eight years, returning to the east to take on the chores of operating this facility in Bayonne.
Winners Bayonne and Alex’s eagle project came together quite by accident as both approached Quintela about what they could do to help the kids.
“Winners donated backpacks and coloring books,” Quintela said. “Alex went and got the rest of the things to put inside.”
These came from a variety of sources, local business and community partners. Alex said he got a lot of donations through local churches.
“We wanted to make sure the children from Head Start were taken care of first,” Quintela said. “Last year not all of them did.”
“We met with Ana to see if there was some way we could get involved in the community,” Kowlaski said. “She has been instrumental in connecting us to different projects in Bayonne – and hooked us up with Alex.”
“These are some of the neediest children in the city.” — Ana Quintela
A place to gather and make noise?
Kowlaski the off track wagering facility is very interested in making community connections. But it also has hopes of becoming a social center for local youth, and he has been very active in getting the word out about the facility.
Branded as a sports bar with action, the 25,000 square-foot venue boasts two large simulcast areas, a VIP room, a 38-seat bar, and a full-service restaurant operated by McLoone’s. With more than 150 television screens, the facility aims to please horseplayers and sports fans alike.
“I can’t hand out enough business cards to people right now, getting them to know about what we offer and where we’re located,” he said, saying that these facilities differ from place to place, and he wanted the Bayonne facility to reflect this area. “I wanted it to look good. I wanted it to look modern. I wanted it to look Vegas, but not too much. I wanted it open and with McLoone’s bar, I think I found exactly what I was looking for.”
He said the Woodbridge facility tends to have “a library feel,” where people sit down and bet and it is relatively quiet.
“That’s good for them,” he said. “That’s their business model and it works. I want a party. I want noise. I want to hear people shouting, and cheering and yelling and rooting for which ever horse they bet on. I want it loud and if its not loud, something is wrong.”
But he said he doesn’t want people to think of Winners Bayonne as an exclusive club, but a place where young people can come.
“This is a place for the young of Hudson County to come to, a place filled with music and noise,” he said, noting that DJ music may be in the future. “I think of our facility as a work in progress,” he said.