Recent efforts by environmental groups and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) have turned the Meadowlands region into a born-again environmental oasis. The Meadowlands Region's Chamber of Commerce is now joining the fray by helping launch an initiative designed to make the Meadowlands a destination region for ecotourism.
"People will come here not just because of what we have to offer in terms of birds and wildlife and views of Manhattan," NJMC Chairwoman Susan Bass Levin told an audience of environmental leaders and local elected officials after Wednesday's NJMC Commissioners' meeting. "But because of what we represent, revitalization and ecotourism five miles from Manhattan."
Good environment equals good business
The NJMC is a legislatively created commission that oversees development in the Meadowlands region, including a portion of Secaucus. It is self-funded by the operation of its landfills.
The NJMC approved granting $415,000 towards the project, including $225,000 for the Chamber of Commerce to establish a Meadowlands District visitors' center and $190,000 to the New Jersey Audubon Society to build a bird-watching trail.
The Chamber's project focuses on gearing area businesses to serve the public, while Audubon's goal is to create an environment usable for tourists.
According to Levin, wildlife watchers spent $1.62 billion on their hobby in New Jersey last year, and over 100,000 bird watchers went to Cape May alone. Cape May, located at the southern tip of the state past exit 1 on the Garden State Parkway, is the state's premier location for ecotourism. Champions of the ecotourism initiative hope that the Meadowlands, which is home to 260 birds (including 25 endangered species), will draw even more birders.
"They spent their money there; they'll spend it here," said Levin.
Tom Gilmore, executive director of the 22,000-member New Jersey Audubon Society, said that the new trail is a key that will unlock the ecotourism dollar.
"We need to create two- to three-day loop trails to get people to stay, eat, and shop in the area," said Gilmore. "Finding sites and connecting them with roads, mass transit, and bikeways."
Gilmore added that Hackensack Riverkeeper, a local branch of a national non-profit environmental organization, will help by creating areas for fishing.
Elements working together
Historically, business interests and environmentalists in the Meadowlands have been at odds, before they decided to work together.
"Every day, I hear, 'jobs versus the environment, jobs versus the environment'" said Gilmore. "You have to realize that they're not mutually exclusive."
The fisticuffs subsided when Jim Kirkos, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, and other business leaders realized that an improved ecosystem offered the opportunity to shape the region for destination marketing.
"As soon as peace broke out in the Meadowlands, I emerged as an environmental entrepreneur," said Captain Bill Sheehan of Hackensack Riverkeeper. "I walked into Jim Kirkos's office and said 'I want to be a member.' Now we're able to grow the economy in all the right ways, no damaging the environment. Staying at the Meadowlands is a great idea. I've been doing it all my life."
Sheehan was referring to the chamber's web site, www.stayatthemeadowlands.com, which is the focal point for such marketing efforts. The website lists local hotels, restaurants and recreation options. With the money provided by the NJMC, the Chamber will create a visitors' bureau made of kiosks throughout the area to provide maps, visitors' guides and other information.
Kirkos hopes to have a kiosk at the chamber's headquarters in Rutherford and at the NJMC's Lyndhurst headquarters by year's end. Eventually, he hopes to see locations throughout the area, including one at the Secaucus Junction train station, the sports complex, and possibly at Harmon Meadows.
Secaucus has an abundance of hotels, and Mayor Dennis Elwell thinks the town will benefit greatly from the initiative.
"It's a cooperative effort by all the towns," Elwell said.
The 30-year-old Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce has 620 member businesses throughout the 14 towns of the Meadowlands district. According to Kirkos, it is growing at a rate of 20 percent per year.
Ecotourism is just one piece of the larger attraction that the area is becoming.
"I think the reality of what is available now is highlighted by the new master plan and the reality of Encap Golf [in Lyndhurst] and Xanadu [a multi-use development in East Rutherford]," said Kirkos. "It would be a guess, but I would imagine 25 percent of the visitors would come directly for the ecotourism."