Goodbye, Lucy?

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Growing up in the sleepy shore town of Margate in the 1960s, Richard Helfant used to hang out on the avenue which runs along the water.

"There was this hot dog stand called Lenny’s," he said, "and it was right here on the corner and that was open 24 hours a day and they had the best — the best — hot dogs on the planet."

Next to the hot dog stand loomed Lucy, a six-story, gray elephant built to attract visitors in 1881. By Helfant’s day, Lucy was in such a state of disrepair that she’d been condemned.

'We would ride our bikes here sometimes, 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning," he recalled, "have hot dogs and break inside the elephant and eat them."

Margate residents eventually helped to get Lucy reopened. Helfant is now the elephant’s Executive Director. He says Lucy, like hundreds of landmarks all over the state from New Jersey’s long and fabled history, have gotten money for repairs from the New Jersey Historic Trust.

But now the trust which supports these buildings is threatened with collapse by a funding crisis, supporters say.

For years, New Jersey’s farmland, open space and historic conservation programs were funded by a series of bonds, issued irregularly by the state.

Last November, New Jersey voters passed a constitutional amendment permanently dedicating a portion of the state's corporate business tax to conserve open space, farmland and historic buildings. However, New Jersey’s historic preservation advocates say the amendment hasn’t provided them with a permanent solution. They’re now battling for a larger share of a shrinking pie.

Open space advocate Tom Gilbert had lead the coalition for a constitutional amendment. He said the more than 180 organizations understood that in exchange for regular funding — as opposed to now-and-then bonds — each group would get a smaller chunk of money. How exactly would that $80 million a year get divided among the coalition organizations?

"There were certain details that were left to be worked out later," Gilbert said.

It turns out that at most, New Jersey Historic Trust will receive $2.4 million, less than half of what it received from the last issuance of a state bond. In 2019, that number will rise by as much as 50 percent as part of a phased-in implementation of the funding change. In the meantime, though, the legislation as written only lets the organization use 5 percent of that to run administrative functions like funding and supervising the preservation work that is critical to its mission, plus advocacy work and the upkeep of archives.

"That would run the New Jersey Historic Trust out of business, frankly," said Janet Foster, who is the trust's vice-chair of the board.

She and her old allies, the environmental advocates who worked together to pass the constitutional amendment, now find themselves in an awkward situation. They are fighting over the same pool of money. "I do not ever want to suggest that we should be in opposition with them," Foster said cautiously, "But I am."

At the state Senate hearing in March, preservationists made a series of polite requests for other groups give up a little of their share. The farmland camp wasn’t having any of it, saying they were already too short. Finally Gregory Remaud, an open space advocate, lost his temper with the farmland group for taking too much from everybody.

"I think farmland was greedy. They were pigs at the trough," he told legislators. 

Even if legislators can arbitrate between these passionate groups, there’s still Gov. Chris Christie. He wants to redirect a quarter of the money to patch the general fund, which could mean even less money for historic preservation.

"That is not a permissible purpose," said State Senator Bob Smith, "not kosher." He said Democratic legislators will try to block the move.