PATERSON, NJ – In disrepair after being dormant for more than two decades, the Paterson Armory stands as one of the symbols of the demise of a once-prosperous city. Mayor Jeffrey Jones calls it part of Paterson’s “broken fabric.’’
“We’ve become accustomed to see it that way,’’ the mayor said. “It’s been that way for years. We walk right past it and don’t see it as a potential jewel.’’
Last June, Jones said during his State of the City address that revitalizing the Armory would be one of the goals of his administration. He asked Paterson Parking Authority Executive Director Tony Perez to take charge of the project. The agency has produced some renderings of a renovated Armory that look like nothing Paterson has ever seen.
Encased in a glass roof that would allow sunlight to brighten an enclosed championship-sized track, the new Armory depicted in the drawings would be a sports Mecca. It would include basketball courts, an indoor soccer field, an Olympic-sized pool, tennis courts, volleyball courts, batting cages, and a bowling alley. The facility also would include a banquet hall and classrooms.
“There are people who think this can never be,’’ said Perez. “To those people, I say, ‘You’re short-sighted.’ It all depends on how hard you work. I’m vested in this project. It’s not just an opportunity to generate revenue. It’s an opportunity to help the community and save lives.’’
So far, the parking authority has spent about $20,000 on the project, including a trip that Perez and Jones took in February to Birmingham, Ala. to get input on the proposal at a conference of the Mayors’ Institute on City Design. The next step is for the Parking Authority to apply for state and federal grants so the planning can go forward, Perez said.
“I think they have a noble idea, but how do we pay for it?’’ asked Councilman Kenneth Morris, chairman of the finance and community development committees. “Who pays to keep the lights on? Who pays for the insurance? Who pays to keep it warm in the winter and cool in the summer? I applaud dreams and ideas, but they have to be based in reality.’’
The one cost-related question that Morris didn’t include in his list was this: Who pays for the renovations to the facility?
A study done several years ago put the cost at more than $10 million, and that was for a modest version that mainly would address things like the leaky roof and safety issues involving fire and electrical codes. The sports offerings would be bare-bones, and nothing like what’s depicted in the Parking Authority’s drawings. That far more ambitious version would cost more than $45 million, Perez said.
“It’s not an insurmountable number if you do things right,’’ said Perez.
The City of Paterson currently owns the building.
Perez says Paterson probably would need to create a private foundation to raise funds for such an Armory. In addition to that, the city would have to obtain grants and historic preservation tax credits. All that, he acknowledged, still would not be enough to cover the entire tab.
“At the end of the day, the city would have to have a vested interest financially in the armory,’’ Perez said. “There will be some gap that will have to be covered.’’
Jones said he thinks private developers could play a role in the project. The mayor said many businesses have approached him about investing in Paterson projects. Jones said his job is to steer them towards the Armory. Jones said he has already accomplish the “hard part” of changing the community’s outlook towards the armory, of convincing people the site could become a place to make Patersonians proud.
Jones said he has been working on some financial plans for the armory that he is not yet ready to make public.
In the summer, the mayor said he is planning to hold community meetings about the project. There’s no doubt, he said, that the parking authority will remain a major player in the armory’s future. “They can go after some private dollars that I can’t go after,’’ he said.
There’s no question the city budget right now is in no shape to take on such an expense. Last year, the budget resulted in almost 400 layoffs and a 29-percent tax increase. This year, the budget raised taxes by three percent, but used several one-shot revenue maneuvers that the city likely won’t be able to rely on next year.
Morris said he favored the idea of restoring the armory so that it could be used as a city recreation facility. But, he said, that would require a “well-thought-out plan.’’