Liberty State Park is a triumph of environmental remediation and urban renewal. The park is a 1,200-acre expanse of land and water, reclaimed from ruins of abandoned rail yards and decayed industrial sites, that has become — in equal measure — a resource for community recreation and a refuge for wildlife. Unfortunately, it neighbors the ultra-exclusive Liberty National Golf Club owned by Paul Fireman, a Massachusetts billionaire, who has coveted portions of Liberty State for years. 

Fireman has backed an array of proposals to transform Liberty State over the years. There was a racetrack that was to have been built on an interior portion of the park, whose amenities would have ostensibly attracted more people to stay at a 95-story hotel and casino that Fireman wanted to build at the park’s southern edge. Fireman even funded an initiative to amend the state constitution to allow gambling outside of Atlantic City to make his casino dreams a reality. He gave up after voters rejected his proposed amendment.

His next act was to try and expand his golf course onto Caven Point, an environmentally sensitive and irreplaceable stretch of sandy beach on the harbor. In exchange, he promised to teach local youth to play golf. Intense community pushback to the takeover at Caven Point temporarily forced Fireman to abandon those dreams. He abandoned teaching the local kids golf, too.

Fireman isn’t done with using local kids as props, though. Now he wants to take another crack at commercializing Liberty State. Stung by his losses, Fireman has crafted a cunning Astroturf campaign under the guise of the People’s Park Foundation. This foundation has co-opted local legends like Coach Bob Hurley to push a pro-developer agenda. Fireman and his allies have donated over a million dollars to produce a slick website, mail out glossy flyers, and run testimonials on Youtube. The plight of Jersey City’s youth features heavily in their messaging. But they have to lie to effectively promote their vision for the park.

The People’s Park Foundation claims Liberty State is an underutilized piece of land whose potential has been ignored by the Department of Environmental Protection and derailed by local activists like Sam Pesin who runs Friends of Liberty State Park. This is a false narrative for two reasons.

First, Liberty State is already the most heavily utilized park in the state’s system with over five million annual visitors. In summer, the park is packed with visitors taking ferries to Ellis Island, families picnicking by the flag plaza, and children running freely across broad lawns and exhausting themselves on jungle gyms. It is a rare and vast open expanse of green in the densely populated cityscape of Hudson County.

Which brings us to the second reason why the People’s Parks misrepresentations are so egregious. Local community associations like Friends of the Liberty State Park have spent countless hours volunteering and raising funds for park amenities for over forty years. Leaders like Pesin have long advocated for the park to reach its full potential and have called for both funding and protection for Liberty State from Trenton. Afterall, there’s still over 230-acres of heavily contaminated land fenced off in the park’s interior that needs expensive environmental remediation before it can be used.

Last year, the state legislature passed $50 million in funding for Liberty State Park to begin the work of redesigning the park, which supplements funds already obtained from a pollution settlement with Exxon. Unfortunately, Trenton did not pass the companion act to protect the park from the type of commercial development advocated by Fireman’s proxies at the People’s Park Foundation.

The state-of-the-art club house could become the state’s premier cultural center, a venue with sweeping views of Liberty State Park, the Statue of Liberty, and New York Harbor.

The long-standing vision for Liberty State has been the restoration of 160-acres of wetland, woodland, and grassland to create wildlife habitat and scenic, passive recreation for all visitors to the park’s interior. Since the park lies in a flood plain, habitat restoration will add a much-needed buffer to protect low-lying neighboring communities from flooding and storm surge. The state’s plan would add 60-acres for active recreation and sport, a community center, and a cultural center in the restored railroad terminal – all free and open to the public. Enacting the DEP plan will continue the park’s tradition of providing outdoor recreation and conserving natural resources.

It looked like the state was finally ready to move forward. DEP Commissioner Shawn LaTourette announced during a virtual meeting that the latest version of the park’s redesign would be revealed to the public on March 23. 

This revised plan wasn’t good enough for Fireman and the People’s Park Foundation. The DEP announcement event was canceled abruptly to allow more “community feedback” after a lawyer for Liberty State Park for All, another group affiliated with Fireman and the People’s Park, sent a letter of complaint. That letter contained yet another fabrication — that a task force established by last year’s funding bill had unanimously voted for redeveloping the park to include two NFL size hockey rinks, indoor track, football stadium, basketball courts, concert venues, and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Yet, the DEP’s own report contradicts that statement, saying the task force “discussed but did not endorse these concepts.” This is now the second time one of Fireman’s groups has derailed plans to open up the interior of Liberty State.

For too long advocates for protecting the park have been on the defensive. It is no longer enough for the politicians in Trenton to merely promise to protect Liberty State. They must act. First, they must pass an updated version of the Liberty State Park Protection Act, preventing overdevelopment of the park. Second, since Liberty National Golf Course and Liberty State Park seemingly cannot co-exist peacefully, Trenton should use its power of eminent domain to purchase Fireman’s golf course.

Fireman could have used his immense resources to purchase private land to build the new facilities for the community that his allies at the People’s Park Foundation advocate for. He could have even donated his own exclusive golf course for that purpose if he truly cared about Jersey City. Yet, he never has. Instead, he’s spent his time and money advocating that New Jersey take its most popular urban park and develop it to generate revenue. 

Community outrage has defeated prior schemes to commercialize the park. This time we can end the fight once and for all. The additional acreage acquired from Fireman’s golf course would provide additional land suitable for public recreation. The state-of-the-art club house could become the state’s premier cultural center, a venue with sweeping views of Liberty State Park, the Statue of Liberty, and New York Harbor. Such an action would reverse a long trend of using public money for private ends and would send a message to developers everywhere who have their eyes on New Jersey’s public lands. 

Plus, this way, the local kids might finally get their long-promised golf academy. That’s all Fireman ever wanted, right? 

So, to protest Paul Fireman and the People’s Park Foundation campaign, I am asking all New Jerseyans to sign the petition asking Trenton to take action to expand Liberty State Park by acquiring Paul Fireman’s golf course as a suitable location for additional community recreation. 

Photo courtesy of Jim Henderson

Eric Conner

Born and raised in New Jersey, Eric grew up going to many of the state parks, including Liberty State, on school field trips and excursions with the Boy Scouts in the 90s and early 2000s. Eric currently...