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Embrace the base Business courtship key to fort's handoff

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Bruce Steadman, left, executive director of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority, and James V. Gorman, its chair, say there's been a healthy amount of interest from companies eager to call the historic base home.
Bruce Steadman, left, executive director of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority, and James V. Gorman, its chair, say there's been a healthy amount of interest from companies eager to call the historic base home.

The closure of Fort Monmouth has been a devastating blow to the region, with thousands of jobs and residents lost when its doors closed last year.

But in the last 18 months, the seeds for a future in which those losses are replaced by new businesses and homes have been planted in an office building near the base, where developers and investors have been visiting Bruce Steadman, executive director
of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority, to discuss their plans.

And the opportunities to invest are about to become more concrete. On May 16, the U.S. Army is scheduled to execute an agreement that will allow the authority to sell parcels of the former base. Unlike previous base closings, Fort Monmouth will undergo a competitive process by which lands and buildings will be sold. Instead of requiring that all sale prices meet official appraised values, the market will determine the prices.

"We've had no less than 125 meetings with investors, developers and employers" from across the country, Steadman said. He and other authority workers are employees of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, giving him a direct tie to high-level state government officials.

The reuse and redevelopment plan for the base was completed in 2008, but it was developed over years, and used data that were even older, which presented problems, Steadman said.

"Today's real estate market is different than what it was five, six, eight years ago," he said. For instance, a site by the fort's golf course that was once envisioned as a location for a hotel may now be better suited for single-family houses, he said.

James V. Gorman, chairman of the authority board, said the loss of the base "has been nothing short of terrible to the local economy" and small-business community, with 5,000 jobs on the base and 5,000 associated jobs disappearing with its closure.

Gorman owns a private-equity firm, Blue Warrior Capital LLC, and has built two other businesses, including Home State Insurance Co., a property casualty insurance company. He said now is a good time to invest in the state, especially with the involvement of the EDA in the Fort Monmouth project.

The redevelopment process hasn't always been easy. For instance, six different Army officials had to sign off on the sale of the fort's Suneagles Golf Course. This led to its brief closure, but due to persistence by the authority, Atlantic Golf Management took over after it was closed last August. It has been busy since it reopened in September, including 125 rounds the day after Thanksgiving.

Atlantic Golf CEO Steve Rice said the course offered an opportunity to expand.

"We also wanted to take advantage of a property like Suneagles that had a storied past, an outstanding reputation and, at the same time, increase its exposure to the general public, since it was a private course for so many years," Rice said.

Rice said the fort offers many opportunities for other businesses. Atlantic Golf, which is leasing the course from the authority, plans on staying until the property is put out to bid.

Until the authority puts the golf course up for sale, "we'll plan on being here and then plan on being an aggressive bidder when it does go up for bid," Rice said.

Planning for the future requires a balancing between meeting short-term needs and the best long-term approach, Gorman said. But by fulfilling its commitments under its agreement with the Army, such as having 20 percent of new housing be affordable housing, Gorman expects the redevelopment to fulfill both sets of needs.

Steadman points to early signs that the planning is paying off, particularly in attracting large corporate tenants. The authority reached an agreement with Oceanport-based CommVault Systems to bring up to 2,500 jobs to the site's "Parcel E" in Tinton Falls.

The data and information management software company is planning to locate its headquarters, including up to 650,00 square feet of new office and research technology space, on the 55-acre tract. This would start with a 200,000- to 250,000-square-foot, $70 million building. The authority has not disclosed the sale price for the property.

Once larger employers are established, smaller firms will have a market to provide retail and services to support them, he said. And he also expects startup and high-tech firms to be attracted by the larger employers his agency is seeking.

The proceeds from the sale of each piece of fort property will be split between the Army, whose portion will go to the federal budget, and the authority, whose portion will be fed back into local communities.

The process has been closely followed by area business owners, who are among the many local people who've participated in the authority's monthly meetings.

Tim McLoone, owner of McLoone's Restaurant Group, decided to pursue the catering contract for Gibbs Hall at the fort. He said the redevelopment of the base may offer opportunities for nearby businesses to recover some of the lost business that occurred as the base shrank over the past two decades.

"There will be redevelopment — it's just too valuable," McLoone said, before adding that the redevelopment is occurring in a depressed real estate market. "It's just terrible timing."

Steadman suspects the first parcels that are sold may bring in more money than they would have under the traditional base-closure process, which will be followed by a lull. Once retailers and support services are established to support the early investors, then the real estate sales should continue apace, he said. He estimates that 80 percent to 85 percent of the base will be redeveloped in 10 to 12 years.

While a range of businesses has inquired about the site, authority officials noted particular interest from technology and health care-related firms. A key step in attracting firms will advance in July, when the authority plans to appoint a "master broker" to help the authority market, sell and lease the fort facilities and property, in cooperation with the Army.

E-mail to: akitchenman@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @Kitchenman

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