They're still moving dirt in Fort Monmouth — and will be for some time.
Not the actual Fort Monmouth; that shut down in 2011, with the Army installation’s closing triggering a loss of 6,000 jobs in Monmouth County. But officials continue to mark progress on ambitious plans to erect housing, shops and other development on the 1,200-acre parcel of land that lies within the boundaries of three beach towns: Eatontown, Oceanport and Tinton Falls.
Since 2013, the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority — the state body created to guide the investment, growth and integration of Fort Monmouth and the surrounding communities — has brokered $29 million in real estate transactions, with another $79 million under contract or in negotiations.
About 69 percent of the sprawling tract is spoken for, with 13 properties sold and another 17 in negotiations. Planned projects include more than 1,400 residential units and 350,000 square feet of retail space, with officials targeting 1 million square feet of completed development by year’s end.
Eventually, they say, the activity will mean 10,000 new jobs, but even its proponents don’t expect the massive project to be done until 2027 — provided things go as planned.
Bounded by Route 35 to the west and the Shrewsbury River to the east, the site features large swaths of open space, small lakes and rows of newly planted pear trees.
“There was a great sense of loss when the Fort closed down,” FMERA Deputy Executive Director David Nuse told NJBIZ. “We’ve spent years planning what should replace it, but through a process a consensus emerged and all three towns are supportive of the development process. Each town has different concerns and different priorities.”
Fort Monmouth started out as a Signal Corps training facility in 1917 and served as the home of the Signal Corps Laboratories and later the Signal Corps Center, with the Electronics Command established in 1962. In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission ordered its closure and the relocation of the Communications-Electronics Command to Aberdeen, Md.
FMERA, which is staffed by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, acquired the western half of the site known as the Charles Wood Area in 2013, with the Army deeding the property to the agency for $1 in exchange for two-thirds of proceeds from the sale of the property. In 2016, the agency purchased the eastern half of the Fort for $33 million, using the proceeds of a loan from the Monmouth County Improvement Authority.
“When the Fort closed, it represented both a huge challenge and unique opportunity for new development,” New Jersey Economic Development Authority Chief Executive Officer Tim Sullivan said via email. “Fast-forward to today. The Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority is tirelessly working in partnership with local municipalities and the county to bring back the jobs that were lost, establish an innovation hub and create an environment that invites people to live, work and play right here in the area.”
Much of the property is still state-owned, but FMERA officials told NJBIZ the goal is to sell approximately 60 percent of the property to the private sector for redevelopment purposes.
The remaining 40 percent will consist of open space and public facilities, with plans to transfer ownership of the open space — including parks, walking trails and wetlands areas — to either the Monmouth County Parks System or to Eatontown, Oceanport or Tinton Falls.
“The goal is to convey the land to Monmouth County, plus each town will obtain open space for their own use,” Nuse said. “Some examples of public facilities already open or under development include Oceanport’s new municipal complex and Monmouth County’s public works facility and its recreation center.”
More than two-thirds of the buildings still standing will be razed, but the site also has seen some buildings renovated and new structures rise from the ground in recent years. Those include:
Other planned projects include mixed-use and residential developments, artist live/work spaces, commercial and retail development, a state college facility and a microbrewery.
The McAfee Complex — a research and tech campus that sits smack in the geographic center of the Fort — will encompass 50 acres and 500,000-square-feet of tech space.
Monmouth County Freeholder Lillian Burry said the redevelopment activity has been a long time coming.
“I viewed it as a lemon that I wanted to turn into lemonade,” Burry said. “Little did I know it would take so long to make lemonade. In the last year and a half we’ve seen a lot of development [and] it’s very exciting to see so much progress being made. We couldn’t afford for nothing to happen — it was too important.”
Unsurprisingly, some of the planned development has gone sour.
In February, a $130 million deal fell through after FMERA and Paramount Realty were unable to come to a final agreement for an expansive mixed-use project that was to be located on a 90-acre parcel of land near the Fort’s Route 35 entrance.
More positively, the county recently moved its recreation facility into Fort Monmouth, with plans for a public works station to transfer into the Eatontown portion of the site.
Oceanport Council President Joseph Irace said the redevelopment has translated into the borough growing by a third in actual land size.
“It’s been interesting, eye-opening and enlightening,” Irace said.
“We fought against the original development plan,” Irace said. “We wanted more local control, but the statute said the state was in charge of development and that was our original beef. We’ve had our battles with FMERA, because sometimes our goals are not compatible.”
Irace noted the borough has not been at the table for many of the negotiations, but Nuse has kept Oceanport in the loop.
“There are many things coming down the pike for Oceanport that are good,” he said. “It’s a blank slate. What we need is jobs in Monmouth County.”
Oceanport’s borough hall, destroyed in Hurricane Sandy in 2012, will move to the Fort next year, with the borough retrofitting an existing building to accommodate its municipal operations.
“We took a huge gamble by doing that,” Irace said. “It was a great step forward. Things are slow and kind of piecemeal. Everyone wanted to see it done years ago. It could be exciting or it could be bad if it’s not developed the right away.”
Oceanport’s police and DPW departments will also be moving inside the Fort.
Eatontown Mayor Dennis Connelly noted the many residents lost after the Fort’s closure but expressed optimism at the possibilities offered by the redevelopment.
“It’s been extremely slow for Eatontown, unfortunately, but I’m still very optimistic,” Connelly said. “It’s taken longer than I would have wanted but I’m very optimistic that we’ll see some success.
“I do anticipate some jobs, although we’re not seeing the same tech jobs when the Fort was open, but they are still jobs. It’s such a beautiful property and we want companies to come in and take advantage of it.”
Tinton Falls Council President Gary Baldwin said the redevelopment has been a boon for the area, noting several companies that have moved into its portion of the Fort.
“The loss of the Fort was a loss to all of us,” Baldwin said. “We decided to aggregate our land because that’s new revenue. Tinton Falls has very little land to redevelop, so when it came time for the Fort to redevelop, we jumped to do it.”
The FMERA mandate requiring developers create jobs has helped stimulate economic growth in the area, Baldwin noted.
“Commvault has been such a blessing to our town and the whole area,” he said, noting the potential of thousands of new jobs for Tinton Falls. “This redevelopment is a tremendous thing for the area. It saved us. We needed new revenue to keep doing the good things we’ve been doing for years. This just came out of nowhere and it’s been a blessing.”
Some 85 percent of Tinton Falls’ portion of land inside the Fort has already been spoken for, according to Baldwin.
Although some residents have expressed concern over traffic issues, the borough is addressing the issue by creating an extra exit off the Garden State Parkway.
Kenny Schwartz, a local businessman and entrepreneur who plans on redeveloping six 4,000-square-foot army barracks into arts-centric spaces, said Eatontown officials were on board when he approached them with the idea for the artist live/work spaces.
Schwartz, who owns a number of restaurants, car and motorcycle dealerships as well as real estate along the Jersey Shore, said he is choosing to rehab the barracks.
“It’s a really daunting task but I wanted to keep the historical nature of the army barracks,” he said.
An avid art collector and owner of an art gallery in Red Bank, Schwartz plans on making one of the buildings an artists residence, which will be offered free of charge for one or two months on the condition they create a piece of art in lieu of rent.
The other five buildings will be rented out to arts-focused initiatives, with murals planned for exteriors and a sculpture park.
“I want this to be a regional arts place,” Schwartz said.
Nuse said the intent is to slowly merge the redeveloped Fort and the surrounding area, noting the eventual removal of the fencing that currently surrounds the site.
“The plan is to integrate the Fort back into the community,” he said.