Years before Fred Constantino ran for Town Council in 1994, he talked about building a legitimate recreation center for the kids of Secaucus. Although some people may have thought this merely campaign rhetoric when he brought it up during his successful 1994 council bid, Constantino meant it, and continued to talk about it even though massive tax appeals draining the council coffers during those years made him have to defer his dream.This week, as the final touches have been made to the converted town garage at 123 Centre Ave., Constantino sees some of this dream come true.
"This isn't everything I wanted," he said, "But it's something that will provide our youth with a place where they can do their gymnastics, play some basketball and other things."
Constantino, council liaison to the Recreation Department, has been instrumental in expanding the recreation program over the last five years, but has consistently bemoaned the lack of space, saying indoor activities in winter have often been a matter scrambling for space. "We've used the school gyms and courts," he said. "But sometimes, especially in winter, the room just isn't there because the schools have their own programs to run."
In the past, Constantino has said that the town should provide space for the town's youth as well as the senior citizens. While the town has had a recreation center on Front Street for years, it was small in 1994 before recreation began to expand, and has since become less adequate with use by the schools for pre-K classes and the recreation department's after school care program for the younger kids. Constantino, joined by Mayor Dennis Elwell, Councilman John Reilly and Department of Public Works Superintendent Mike Gonnelli, toured the building last week in the final stages of development. While the floors had not been laid yet, nor the lights fully installed, the steel beams helping to support the roof and walls had been installed. One of the problems, Elwell noted, was the structure of the barrel-type roof and the supports.
"That was our biggest concern," said Mayor Elwell. "Because of the roof the walls were bending out, and we needed to put in steel supports to make the building secure. The roof was pressing down and the walls were buckling out."
Initially, the town bid out the project, but when the cost estimates came back in excess of $138,000, town officials decided to see if the DPW could do the work instead. Gonnelli said the investment paid off and his department managed to complete the project for $78,000, or about $60,000 less than the lowest bid price, with 90 percent of the work done by DPW workers.
While the steelwork has been completed, building an internal trellis that supports walls and roof, much of the interior work still needs to be done.
"We still have a lot of carpentry to do," Gonnelli said. "And we still need to put down the new floor."
The floor, Gonnelli said, will have a multi-purpose use, rather than traditional flooring use for basketball. The town is also negotiating for heating and air-conditioning, hoping to bring down the bids which were higher than expected.
Constantino said the center will not be able to accommodate a traditional basketball court because of height restrictions. But he said the facility will be able to provide Biddie basketball - with an 8-foot high hoop as opposed to regulation height of 10 feet - and will be able to bring under one roof many of the town's recreation programs that are currently scattered through the schools, such as gymnastics, wrestling and cheerleading.
Will help seniors, too
But it is not only the young who will benefit. Senior citizens will also have use of the space for their aerobics and other exercise programs, allowing them to come in from various senior citizens buildings where such activities now take place.
Constantino also said the recreation department is thinking of setting up winter Boccie courts in the recreation center. The facility will have handicapped accessible toilets, office space, as well as storage - something that had been lacking in the recreation department for years. The space can hold uniforms and equipment for both indoor and outdoor activities.
Elwell is hoping also to get some of the more artistic students to help develop a mural for the walls, something that will reflect the spirit of the town in a visual way.
"All of this is a team effort," he said. "This includes our cooperation with the schools."
Constantino said that by providing younger kids with recreation facilities such as these, the town is in effect creating a kind of minor league for the team sports in the school system, teaching kids early the fundamentals so that they can succeed later. Elwell, however, said it goes beyond merely sports, but providing a rounded education and a physical fitness in the town's youth.
Growing bigger all the time
In the 1950s and 1960s, recreation in Secaucus came as result of the efforts of two dedicated men: Red Hossen and Burt Stein. For years, they were the heart and soul of Secaucus recreation. Basketball in Lincoln Junior High and summer baseball made up most of the program. Kids used to go down to Kane Stadium. Buchmuller Park didn't exist then. Hossen and Stein would pick teams at random, and the kids would play after school until June, when more structured teams got organized and these played against each other.
Organized recreational football didn't exist then. Local kids formed their own teams, several with the help of the Karet brothers, owners of the Keystone Metal Finishing plant, who sponsored the teams, printed the names and numbers on the jerseys. These teams played in what was called "the back road" or south end of town.
They didn't have much in the way of equipment. Some had helmets. Some had shoulder pads. But they played hard, tackling each other as if fully equipped.
Over the years, things changed dramatically as the town began to grow. Organized recreation became a central part of life in Secaucus, involving adults and children. Little League, Babe Ruth, and eventually, town run programs began to fill the gap.
One of the people very instrumental in helping the town recreation department was Jim Clancy when he served as council Liaison to the recreation department from 1986 to 1992. For years, the town actually had two recreation programs, one run by the town, the other by the Board of Education. In April 1992, the town took over those programs run by the schools, shaping the entire program so as to provide kids with year-round activities. Councilman John Bueckner served as recreation liaison for part of the transition in the mid-1990s. The original recreation center on Front Street opened for the first time in November 1992, adding one more facet to the growing program. One of the older programs in town recreation is Biddie Basketball, which generally starts up the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year and runs every Saturday until March. It will likely become one of the fixtures in the new recreation center.
When Fred Constantino became Council Liaison, the recreation department didn't only make a point of reaching out to the community. It has attempted to change the nature of recreation, trading parent participation for a much better trained group of coaches. This small change, along with dozens of other equally minor but revolutionary concepts, has changed the nature of Secaucus recreation, allowing Recreation Director Robert Fantozzi to create a professional and accredited program with coaches dedicated to providing kids with the fundamentals of sports.
Over the last two or three years, programs have grown so much that officials have felt pressure to find more facilities. The new Centre Avenue Recreation Center, officials hope, will help take some of pressure off existing facilities.