Notes from Gallo Center meeting to discuss Casino in the Park

Yesterday was the meeting at the Gallo Center to discuss the future of the Casino in the Park. I know quite a few people who wanted to go but couldn’t make it, so I’m writing up this account of it. I noted there was a reporter from the Jersey  Journal also in attendance, so I suspect there will be a report on it in the paper this week.

I’m dividing this post into two sections: straight reporting (as unbiased as I can make it) and then my own personal opinions. So here we go…

Straight reporting:

  • The meeting featured a panel of people involved in bringing in a new tenant to the space currently occupied by Casino in the Park. Most notable, and responsible for most of the talking and discussion, were Tom DeGise, County Executive and Bill O’Dea, County Freeholder. Three other county employees were there, including the attorney for the county in this matter; they mostly made a few opening comments and then Tom and Bill did the rest of the talking. The meeting was hosted by WSCA, and introductory comments were by Jodi Drennan.
  • Casino in the Park has been in its location for a very long time – it didn’t seem as though anyone knew exactly how long, but something in the span of 30-35 years seems to be correct. Needless to say, it’s been there for a while and has become an institution for Jersey City. That said, it has been in recent years mostly a catering hall – not open for lunch/dinner, but for special occasions only. Their lease is now up.
  • The park has undergone tremendous changes during the time Casino in the Park has been there. Whereas 20 years ago crime was a significant problem, it isn’t anymore. People used to be afraid to go into the park after dark; now that’s no longer the case.
  • There are $2million in improvements/upgrades that need to be done to the space before a new tenant moves in, and it has been decided that the new tenant will shoulder the responsibility for those costs. That means that the new tenant will likely need a very long lease – 20-30 years – in order to make back that initial investment and turn a profit.
  • Casino in the Park has allowed numerous churches and nonprofit groups to use its space for meetings and fundraisers for little to no cost. It was brought up several times that continuing this tradition should be something the new tenant takes on; however, the practicality of this remains to be seen.
  • People in the audience raised questions primarily around two concerns: safety and accessibility. On safety, it was raised that we don’t want to return to the time when the park was unsafe, and that a consideration as to closing time of the new establishment (especially if they serve alcohol, which they probably will) needs to be discussed. On accessibility, there were a variety of concerns of how “fine” a “fine dining” establishment it should be. Are we talking $25 for dinner? $100? $50? How important is it that the restaurant cater to the people who live in the neighborhood, or should it act as a draw for people from outside the neighborhood?
  • Alternative ways of revisioning the restaurant model were discussed, from a food hall-type space to a cafe within a fancier restaurant.

My personal take:

  • I think the important part of the meeting was bringing people in the community together and showing the county officials that this is something we take seriously and that we see as important for our neighborhood. That show of “we are here and we are watching” was the main point of the meeting, at least to me.
  • I am (along with others) concerned about a restaurant with a bar potentially turning out drunk patrons into the park late at night, but there’s a lot of steps that could be taken to lessen this issue. It doesn’t have to be an problem if it’s actually planned for.
  • It’s hard to know what’s going to happen and what our options are until we at least get some potential vendors in the mix. I can say that I strongly want (for instance) a mid-range vegetarian cafe to open there, but if no one steps forward to say they’re willing to invest and operate such a place, what difference does it make? We can sit and argue about whether it should appeal to the golfers coming to the golf course or young families in the neighborhood – ultimately, we have to see who is willing to take on that investment and commitment, what kind of profits they need to make back the money they’ve put in, and so forth.
  • I don’t want the restaurant to fail. Two million is a lot of money to put up front, and 30 years is an awfully long lease. I’ve gotten used to watching a lot of small businesses on West Side Ave rent a space, fix it up, open…. and then close in a month. It’s unfortunate, but in this case it could be really tragic. I really think this entire endeavor has to be in the hands of someone who really knows what they’re doing, or this could be a mess.

It sounded like the timeline for this is that by the end of the month there will be a request for vendors to step up and announce their interest. I think it was stated that we should have some idea about who is seriously interested in pursuing this by the end of October. Many more meetings to come, so stay tuned.