By JOHN T. WARD
As expected, the Red Bank council derailed an ambitious plan for $3.5 million worth of private development on the site of the borough-owned red clay tennis courts in Marine Park Monday night.
Still, a roomful of frustrated tennis enthusiasts packed the council chambers, many of them holding paper signs urging the council to now restore the hurricane-damaged riverfront courts to playability.
Echoing comments she made last week to redbankgreen, Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer said a committee that includes herself and council colleagues Kathy Horgan and Ed Zipprich were recommending the council abandon the request-for-proposals process begun last spring for the courts site.
Though a pitch for private development of the site by startup Jetsun Enterprises was the winner on paper, going by criteria in the bid-like RFP, public sentiment was not among the criteria, and “the preponderance of public opinion was not in favor” of the Jetsun plan, Schwabenbauer said.
The Jetsun proposal called for the partnership to lease the riverfront red clay courts site from the town and build a multiuse facility offering miniature golf, a miniature artificial-ice rink and rentals of canoes, kayaks and other watercraft.
A competing plan, from a group billing itself as the Marine Park Activity Center, involved building a conventional boathouse with a catering facility at the site. Under the third plan, tennis enthusiast Jim Cullen of Locust said he would donate $500,000 to restore and upgrade the courts and provide a budget for maintenance.
Schwabenbauer said she and the other members of the triumverate had received 83 letters, 12 emails and “lots of phone calls,” most of them advocating against the Jetsun plan.
Though the second-best option was not identified, the borough cannot opt for it, Schwabenbauer said in response to a question from Councilwoman Cindy Burnham, because under the RFP criteria, “the bid that scores highest wins,” and so the only way to reject Jetsun was to reject all three proposals.
“Our hands are a little bit tied here,” she said.
“We’re just following the law, and public opinion, and hope everyone understands that,” Horgan said, in response to grumbling from the audience. “Now, we’re going to start over from scratch.”
“In my opinion, the RFP was written for Jetsun,” Burham said, prompting the biggest applause of the meeting.
Schwabenbauer, though, said that terminating the RFP process showed that the council was “listening to the people.”
Later, during public comments, Don Pepe, a lawyer for the nonprofit Red Bank Clay Courts Association, pressed the council to allow the courts to be used again. For years, the association maintained the courts, which require diligent care, on behalf of the town.
“The money is there to fix these courts,” Pepe told the council. “You don’t need an RFP” to reopen them, he said.
Zipprich and Administrator Stanley Sickels said that borough public works employees were tackling long-deferred maintenance jobs now that their former trash hauling duties have been privatized, and last week cleared the courts of weeds and debris.
Neither said when the courts might be ready for play, however.
No one representing either Jetsun or the Marine Park Activity Center spoke at the meeting, and Jetsun officials last week declined comment on the council’s expected action.
In a statement released to redbankgreen over the weekend, however, the three principals of the MPAC proposal lamented that, with the abandonment of the RFP process, “the people of Red Bank have once again been denied access to one of the last places that has access to the Navesink River.”
In their statement, Sandy Talarico, Phil Flego and Gayle Horvath said that one reason their proposal “fell short” was that “the town was looking for revenue.”
“That is the reason that our proposal contained a large catering facility; it was the only way we could make enough money to make the town happy,” they wrote. “It’s one of the reasons that the Jetsun proposal was designed the way it was; they are a private developer and they are in business to make money.
“We hope the town reconsiders how to move forward with the site and decides that a non-profit that provides everyone access to the river is the way to go,” the group said.