County moves ahead on major projects

Developer for Casino in the Park sought; land cleared for new court complex

It's curtains for the old county court house
It's curtains for the old county court house

Closed for more than a year, Casino in the Park, a long-established event venue in Lincoln Park, may get a makeover.

But it may also become a high-end public facility similar to the one in New York City’s Central Park.

In seeking bids, county officials believe the Casino in the Park can attract more upscale users similar to those in venues like Liberty House in Liberty State Park.

“I know the guy at Liberty House is bidding on it,” said Freeholder Anthony Romano. “But we have to follow the bidding guidelines.”

The casino, which was a venue for many public and political functions for nearly 70 years, closed in late 2017 after the previous lease expired.

Casino in the Park is a restaurant and catering hall owned by Hudson County, but leased to a private operator.

The venue was originally developed by the owner of El Morocco in Manhattan in the 1950s and was a political and social gathering place for generations.

The site serves as a catering hall for weddings, business groups, union gatherings, and political functions. The Hudson County Senior Citizens of the Year event is held at the Casino each June.

Because the county failed to get a new operator, it has put out redevelopment of the site to bid.

“We expect bids back early in May,” Romano said.

Bernie Sweeney and his family had operated Casino in the Park since the 1950s. But the facility needs a $2 million renovation, which any new operator would have to bankroll.

The facility is on the south side of the park near the new county-operated golf course, part of a massive waterfront redevelopment along the west side of Jersey City.

It was constructed originally as a club house for tennis courts on the other side of the park and was used for a time as a summer museum before being converted to a restaurant.

In 1963, Frank Sinatra attended his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration at Casino in the Park. In 1991, the Hudson County Democratic Organization was addressed by then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Former Gov. Jon Corzine, and U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez are among many Hudson County Democrats who have held functions at the Casino.

Land cleared for new court complex

After years of working out the details, the Board of  Freeholders earlier this year awarded a $4.45 million bid to clear the land and develop a master plan for construction of the new Hudson County Courthouse.

Over the last few weeks, buildings have been demolished in preparation for an expected groundbreaking late this year.

“There is work going on moving wires and doing other infrastructure,” said Romano. “We expect the project to break ground late this year.”

He said the construction of the new court complex will likely take two to three years to complete.

Hudson County Assignment Judge Peter Bariso has been pushing for the development of a new courthouse for years, citing problems in the existing facility.

“There’s water around people’s desks,” he said. “I would love for the project to move ahead with rabbit speed, but I’ll settle for a turtle’s pace as long as it keeps moving ahead.”

The freeholders have been debating a new courthouse complex for more than a decade to replace the County Administration Building at 595 Newark Ave. The building was constructed in the 1960s but has had massive and costly problems over the last 20 years.

Over the last two years, the county began purchasing the property needed. The county purchased the last piece from Jersey City late last year.

The existing administration building holds state and county courtrooms, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, and other county offices. The new building would house mostly courtrooms.

County officials were notified about the problems at 595 Newark Ave. more than 25 years ago. Now the cost is nearly 10 times what the county originally estimated. A 1988 study by the National Center for State Courts showed that the administration building was “functionally unsatisfactory in terms of circulation, structural, and environmental systems.”

The county will also realign several local streets that will allow Central Avenue, which currently stops near the Route 139 overpass, to connect with Newark Avenue.

Originally estimated at a cost of between $150 to $170 million, the eventual price tag for the new courthouse could be as much as $345 million. The cost will likely exceed even that before it’s completed, officials said.

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