By Mayor Daniel J. Reiman, Borough of Carteret
Step inside the spacious new Robert Wood Johnson Rahway Fitness and Wellness Center at Carteret; you will be certain you’ve entered a luxury spa resort. This isn’t the typical municipal recreation or community center. In fact, there’s nothing typical or institutional about it.
Painstakingly-planned, thoughtfully-designed and creatively-funded, the RWJ Rahway Fitness and Wellness Center is an attractive, functional facility that is quickly becoming a central hub of the Carteret community. And it was all accomplished through a public/private partnership. Construction was completed with no local tax dollars.
This 44,000-sqaure-foot, state-of-the-art facility at 60 Cooke Avenue – with its distinctive architectural features and deluxe amenities – is complete with a heated college-size lap pool, two heated therapy pools, cardiovascular and weight rooms, aerobics studios, a multi-purpose sports room, physical therapy facilities, a free daycare center for members, a lounge and a health food café.
The $14.5 million center was strategically placed to stimulate new private investment in the Washington & Cooke Avenue Redevelopment Areas, viewed as our borough’s downtown. Located across the street from Carteret’s historic Borough Hall and adjacent to our public library and community center, my vision is for the RWJ Rahway Fitness and Wellness Center to be the redevelopment catalyst for a vibrant neighborhood with a mix of stores, homes, restaurants and offices.
Five years in the planning and fundraising, our Fitness and Wellness Center opened Nov. 1, 2011 as the result of historic and extraordinary public-private partnerships that Carteret and its Redevelopment Agency forged with builder Matzel Development and with the facility’s operator, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Rahway.
What’s more: the Fitness and Wellness Center – which supports more than 100 permanent jobs – was constructed and is now operating without a dime from Carteret residential property owners. From its inception, my top priority was for this new facility to be self-sustaining, membership-based, and market-driven.
Early in the development phase, my administration decided that Carteret should not incur public debt for its construction and, once built, our Fitness and Wellness Center should not be sustained by our annual municipal budget, or any type of subsidies.
Proudly, Carteret attained those goals. We signed a long-term lease with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Rahway that will generate more than $300,000 in annual rent for Carteret and allow the borough to share a significant percentage of the profits from this facility.
My administration worked closely with our development partners, community boards, commissions, advisory groups, and a host of regional associations to broaden my initial vision for this project. To accomplish it, we made the best, most creative use of state redevelopment statutes, our special improvement district, and Carteret’s Urban Enterprise Zone designation.
In the initial planning phase, I accompanied other representatives from Carteret on visits to municipal recreation and community centers throughout New Jersey and as far away as Pennsylvania. We collected ideas and valuable perspectives on the task ahead. These included visits to facilities that Robert Wood Johnson operates in Scotch Plains, Old Bridge and other communities.
Those fact-finding visits convinced me that I did not want Carteret’s center to look or feel like just another government or institutional-style building. Being a full-time mayor who oversees the borough’s day-to-day operations and staff, allowed me to remain involved in each facet of this project – from the planning and environmental clean-up of contaminated properties on Cooke Avenue, through the construction, and including the choice of granite and woods, paint and stain colors, and the selection of other amenities.
Our plans also dictated that RWJ Rahway Fitness and Wellness Center at Carteret be built using environmentally-friendly standards and energy-efficient materials. The most impressive of these “green technologies” is an innovative HVAC system that heats the building by recycling heated water from the indoor swimming pool.
Financing for our center was kick-started in 2007 when Middlesex County committed $3 million in Recreation Funds earmarked for construction of the college-size swimming pool, now part of the 7,000-square-foot aquatic center that also includes a heated therapy pool and therapeutic hot tub.
Work on this project began in the fall of 2008 with the demolition of a city block along Cooke Avenue adjacent to the Carteret’s historic Borough Hall. The New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zone Authority awarded Carteret – one of the state’s 37 UEZ-designated communities – a $500,000 grant toward that demolition and environmental site preparations.
Meanwhile, my administration and the Carteret Borough Council vigorously sought financial support from corporate and private donors, private endowments, and we set aside funds from Developer Impact fees and litigation settlements. In 2010, Middlesex County dedicated another $500,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant monies toward our project.
To build our center, Carteret signed a redevelopment agreement with Greg Matzel, president of Matzel Development, which formed Cooke Avenue Developers L.L.C to construct this project.
Matzel Development, based in Ocean Township, is an award-winning builder known for many prominent luxury housing projects throughout New Jersey, having developed the 288-unit Bristol Station that stands proudly adjacent to one of Carteret’s gateways, immediately off the Turnpike’s Interchange 12.
A key benefit to building our Fitness and Wellness Center under the umbrella of the state’s Redevelopment Statutes was that it allowed our builder to save money by serving as the construction manager and to value-engineer this project. This eliminated the need for a general contractor and it enabled Matzel to reduce a variety of other construction costs.
Although the groundbreaking occurred at about the same time as our national economic downturn, it turned out to be the right time for Carteret to build. This redevelopment project created more than 200 unionized construction jobs. Local tradesmen, craftsmen and laborers were given preference for jobs under a Carteret-first hiring policy. It also enabled Matzel to negotiate better prices for materials and ancillary services.
Construction was well underway by the time Carteret selected Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Rahway to operate the facility after a competitive review and selection process.
One of three applicants, Robert Wood Johnson’s vision and objectives were best-suited to my administration’s goals. From the outset, we envisioned a state-of-the-art facility that went beyond offering standard fitness and would also provide a comprehensive range of health and wellness resources.
RWJ University Hospital Rahway also had the requisite experience. It already operated a successful fitness and wellness facility in Scotch Plains and similar medically-based centers in Old Bridge and Hamilton. It is scheduled to open a fifth center in New Brunswick later this year.
Under the name “RWJ Rahway Fitness & Wellness at Carteret,” the borough granted a 20-year lease with four, five-year extension options. Initially, the lease will bring in $300,000 annually to Carteret, with rent increases every five years, and a provision for Carteret to share a percentage of the facility’s annual profit.
The lease enables RWJ University Hospital Rahway to provide an expansive medical element at our fitness center, including physical/occupational therapy, medical support groups, diabetes education, cardiac rehabilitation and exercise physiology.
Our partnership with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Rahway also gives members of the Fitness and Wellness Center on-site access to physicians, nurses and other health professionals who conduct medical screenings and offer regular educational programs on topics like weight and stress management, nutrition and healthy cooking, smoking cessation, first aid and basic lifesaving.
Before construction was complete, nearly 2,000 people had signed up for membership. In the months since opening, membership has climbed to more than 3,000. Many of them travel 10-to-12 miles to use the Fitness and Wellness Center, from Perth Amboy, neighborhoods throughout eastern Woodbridge, Linden, Rahway, and even Staten Island, N.Y.
Geared to accommodate an adult clientele, membership ranges from young professionals to seniors, with the median age near 50. Strategic marketing has helped RWJ Rahway Fitness and Wellness Center at Carteret attract members from over 40 different zip codes.
It offers affordable general membership fees and Carteret residents benefit with discounted single and family memberships. Special rates are also available for business partners.
Another 2,000 members are expected to join our Fitness and Wellness Center as a result of Robert Wood Johnson’s marketing program. With its growing membership, our Fitness and Wellness Center is generating more vehicular and pedestrian traffic in Carteret’s downtown, creating the kind of vibrancy that my administration had envisioned.
That translates into more potential customers for small businesses in our Urban Enterprise Zone and Business Improvement District. As a result, my administration is more confident that this facility will indeed inspire further neighborhood revitalization, generate new construction, and bring more small businesses to the area.
With diligence and perseverance, other New Jersey communities can replicate what Carteret has achieved. The essential keys to success are willing public and private partners, transparency that allows and encourages “community buy-in” to the process, and a long-term vision for smart growth.
Success in Carteret required thousands of man hours from government officials, volunteers, construction workers, planners, architects, designers, vendors and others who helped to deliver our Fitness and Wellness Center on-time and under-budget – with no tax consequence to our residents.
More information, photographs and details about the Robert Wood Johnson Rahway Fitness and Wellness Center at Carteret are available at http://www.rwjfitnesscarteret.com. Learn more about the Borough of Carteret at http://www.carteret.net . I urge you call my office with questions about how you can replicate our success.
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