Paul Amico came in a role other than as the Board of Education president. Amico, who grew up around the Hackensack River, spends many hours on boats as part of his job. As the owner of Amico Iron Works in Secaucus, Amico is responsible for the construction and repair of nearly all the ferry piers along the Hudson River. Oddly enough, for enjoyment, he says he likes to go out on a kayak to relax.
"I go to a lot of places," he said, as he posed for a picture in his kayak before launching himself into Mill Creek to join the fleet of boats making their way along a section of the Hackensack River. On land, participants took advantage of a unique collection of kiddie rides, horse rides and pig races. Kids also got up close to goats, baby chicks and other animals in a petty zoo, while adults took hay wagon-style rides.
The event, held June 9, brought together various factions of the environmental community, some of whom had sharp political differences over issues such as preservation of open space and restoring of the wetlands area. Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan brought his pontoon boat to help ferry people from the Old Mill site in Secaucus to the Carlstadt Marina, though taking brief tours of the local meadows along the way.
"I got to talk to hundreds of people about the recovery of the river," Sheehan said, noting that he hadn't planned initially to take such an active role in this year's festival. "I thought we were going to set up an exhibit at the Old Mill. But then Michael [Gonnelli] asked me to bring the big boat to help shuttle people across."
Sheehan said many of the old feuds between the environmental factions seemed to have evaporated over the last few months.
"There is a spirit of cooperation reigning over the Meadowlands," Sheehan said, "and I'm glad to be a part of it." Sheehan said many of the issues that divided the environmental community seemed to get settled when Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco came to the area in April, throwing his support behind preservation efforts.
Bonnie Shepherd, spokesperson for the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, which was one of the event's principal sponsors, said the event helped make people aware of the recreational uses of the river as well as how much has been accomplished towards restoration and preservation of the remaining wetlands.
Partly to protect the site from perceived overdevelopment, Secaucus purchased the Old Mill site along the river two years ago. This was part of then-Mayor Anthony Just's plan to preserve open space. The project was then inherited by his successor, current Mayor Dennis Elwell, and got a boost when the HMDC agreed to develop an environmental study center, which is slated for construction later this year. The HMDC sponsored the June 9 event to show off the site to the public and to give people a better sense of where the Meadowlands are headed in the future.
Michael Gonnelli, who serves in the dual capacity as superintendent of the Secaucus Department of Public Works and as a commissioner on the HMDC, said the festival was designed to show people how much the river was revived. Also, by putting a park and an environmental center on the Old Mill site, the HMDC is assuring the area will remain a focus of attention.
What's in a name?
The River Festival coincided with major changes in the name and mandate the HMDC. Acting at the request of the HMDC Executive Director Alan Steinberg, the state legislature agreed to rename the HMDC, dropping the word "development."
On May 31, the state Senate unanimously approved changing the name to the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. The state assembly approved the name change, again unanimously, earlier this year, leaving it up to Acting Gov. DiFrancesco to sign the change into law.
Sheehan said the name change has been accompanied with a sense of cooperation he's never seen before. "It seems supernatural," Sheehan said.
When announcing the request for the change at a meeting in May, Steinberg said the name change would make the agency's priorities clearer, claiming that the commission has always been sensitive to the needs of the environment.
The HMDC was founded in 1969 to oversee conflicts in the Meadowlands as well as to monitor trash. Illegal dumping plagued the area in the 1950s and 1960s, and municipalities could not agree on how to develop the wetlands areas.
Critics like Sheehan claimed the HMDC "bent over backwards" to encourage development while doing much less to preserve open space. Steinberg and others, however, said the issue was much more complex and that commission often confronted private property concerns, and had to shape a policy that acted fairly towards property owners who had invested in the Meadowlands.
A summit on the river
On June 4, five days before the river festival, Congressman Steve Rothman brought together representatives from all the principal agencies involved in the Meadowlands restoration.
The summit meeting, held in Rothman's Hackensack office, brought together conservation groups, governmental and environmental organizations in an attempt to develop a long-term solution to preserve and protect the Hackensack Meadowlands.
Rothman gave the group five concrete steps to be taken to preserve the last remaining parcels of open space. "This was an excellent meeting which brought diverse parties to the same table and gave everyone an opportunity to look at the big picture together," Rothman said.
The groups attending agreed with Rothman's five-step proposal, under which:
The conservation groups will provide the HMDC with a list of additional parcels that should be acquired for open space as well as the justifications for doing so.
Utilize the Hudson-Raritan Estuary program under the Army Corps of Engineers to obtain funds to purchase and clean up the Meadowlands. This program is similar to a federal program designed to preserve the Florida everglades.
: Form a relationship between Green Acres (New Jersey's land acquisition program) and the HMDC to provide a list of all possible funding sources.
Meet again after a decision is reach by the state about the future of the Continental Airlines Arena site. The New Jersey Nets and the New Jersey Devils have agreed to move to a new arena to be constructed in Newark by 2004.
"I am excited about the progress we made and I am very hopeful for the future," Rothman said.
Sheehan called the meeting one of the most significant made on the future of the Meadowlands and said that it put to end previous master plans that included significant increased development in the wetlands.