The West Side Community Alliance (WSCA) held their quarterly meeting last Saturday morning, September 9th, and the only item on the agenda was the fate of Casino in the Park in Jersey City’s Lincoln Park. The current lease expires this fall and Hudson County is pursuing proposals, signaling possibly the end of an era and certainly the desire to direct attention to the iconic venue located in the county’s largest and oldest park along West Side Avenue.
Opened as a restaurant in 1950 and operated by the Sweeney family for more than 50 years as an event space, Casino in the Park has been a fixture in the community for generations, hosting weddings and offering an affordable space for organizations like the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce to meet. Frank Sinatra’s parents even celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary there in 1963.
The President of the WSCA, as well as Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise and Freeholder Bill O’Dea, have expressed a desire for Casino in the Park to become a high-end restaurant, open for lunch and dinner, while also admitting “high-end” was a subjective description. They were present to hear the community’s ideas and to moderate the discussion, but also confirmed several restaurateurs have expressed interest. They also conceded this will not be a simple process and have already experienced delays due to property line discrepancies.
The first phase will be a Request For Information (RFI). It has been estimated that necessary improvements to update the property could cost upwards of $2 million dollars and any bidder should be financially prepared for such an investment. However, the high capital requirement will probably ensure a long lease period. A chance for interested investors to visit the property is tentatively scheduled for September 27th.
The questions and ideas gathered from the RFIs will inform the more formal Request For Proposal (RFP) phase, but participating in the RFI is not a necessary prerequisite for responding to the RFP. City officials have also stated that the property won’t necessarily go to the highest bidder–the best use of the space for Lincoln Park and the City of Jersey City and preserving some sense of the history and character of the space will be considered.
Many residents expressed concern that people from the neighborhood wouldn’t be able to afford to eat in a high-end restaurant. Concern about safety in the park after dark was also expressed. Other ideas floated were a trendy and less risky food hall, multi-vendor approach and more of a casual, day-in-the-park kind of cafe, serving coffee, sandwiches, and ice cream.
Many residents also saluted the Sweeneys for their contribution to the community by offering up the Casino for events and meetings at a reasonable rate–the elegant Mrs. Kathleen Strebb-Sweeney was in attendance Saturday. Councilman Chris L. Gadsden asked that the future operator be flexible and inclusive. City officials also saluted the Sweeneys, but reminded residents that their generosity to local groups was probably at the expense of capital improvements. Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise concluded by saying, “Let’s see where the process takes us.”