Fort Hancock a Step Closer to Getting a Makeover

Like many young teens in the mid-to-late 1960s, Julie Hankinson spent some of her best days at Sandy Hook. Hankinson, though, had an advantage. She didn't have to leave after the sun set or when the school year started. She lived there year-round as one of seven kids of U.S. Army Col. Dan Johnson, commander at the Fort Hancock Army outpost on the northern end of the peninsula.

"It was a great time," Hankinson told The Star-Ledger of Newark. "Our entire family loved living there and many of our fondest memories are from Fort Hancock."

Her father retired in 1969 and moved to Florida, where he died two years ago, but her siblings still talk about returning to the house they loved for a family reunion.

That day may be coming.

The Fort Hancock Advisory Committee released the results of its efforts to determine the public's interest in investing in the buildings on Friday, and at least seven suggested turning some of the historic buildings into bed and breakfasts.

The post was decommissioned in 1974 and the buildings have sat empty since then. The National Parks Service took charge of the former post and included it as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. In October, it sought public input on potential uses for about 35 of the 100-year-old buildings.

Jennifer Nersesian, superintendent of the Gateway National Recreation Area, said the committee received 41 responses for individual buildings or the entire post.

"It was a phenomenal number," she said. "It was a level of interest we didn't expect to see."

The suggestions ranged from converting the buildings into private residences, bed and breakfasts, art studios, restaurants, a hospice unit, a sailing school and even a dog-walking park.

Ideas for the building that housed the Johnson family included a private residence, a seasonal rental or a bed and breakfast.

Under the Park Service's proposal, interested parties would pay to fix up the properties and then lease them from the federal government at reduced rates.

The Johnson family home was built in 1899 and needs more than $350,000 in repairs to make it habitable again, according to estimates from the National Park Service.

But even when Hankinson lived there as teen, the home on Officer's Row facing Sandy Hook Bay had some drawbacks.

"The wind would go straight through," Hankinson said. She recalled her room on the second story had a closet with a light that went on when the door opened and off as the door closed.

"I remember waking up one night to a flashing light. I had no idea what was going on."

The wind, apparently, was blowing the closet door open and shut.

Hankinson remembers soldiers from other posts vacationing at the barracks during the summer months. The enlisted men used North Beach, while Gunnison, now a clothing-optional beach, was reserved for officers. ("My father would be spinning in his grave if he knew," Hankinson said.)

Suggestions for the barracks ranged from a catering hall to a dance studio and stage for international performances.

The NPS previously had sought a public/private partnership to restore the buildings when it entered into a lease agreement in 1999 with Sandy Hook Partners, a private organization headed by Jim Wassel. The group planned to spend $70 million to $90 million to restore the buildings.

But the plan drew the ire of Save Sandy Hook, a grass roots organization that opposed using the one-time military outpost as a profit-making enterprise.

After two court battles, the Park Service ended the lease with Sandy Hook Partners in 2010.

Wassel, a realtor who lives in Rumson, wants to remain involved with the project. "It's an incredible piece of property," he said, "it's like nothing else."

He prefers to see a master developer manage the site instead of individual lease owners.

"You can't have two dozen people doing their own thing. It's all about the fit, getting the right mix of uses," he said.

The advisory committee said it will explore the idea. Friday's meeting marked the end of the first stage — determining whether there was interest in a public-private venture to save the buildings. It expects to issue a formal request for proposals in the next few months.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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