Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura and banker Joseph Buckelew, the vice chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority board, were on the majority side of the 9–2 vote on Feb. 12, 2003, in favor of allowing the Xanadu shopping and entertainment project to be built on state-owned property in the Meadowlands.
More than 14 years later, with the mall still not open and work stalled with Xanadu’s successor, American Dream Meadowlands, Fontoura and Buckelew are the only pro-Xanadu voters who remain on the board. They spoke this week about their hopes for the project.
“As a cop, I can’t lose my optimism,” Fontoura told The Record. “Frustration is too soft a word, to say the least. The reason I voted for that thing and moved that motion at the time is a more prevalent issue today: jobs. For somebody in my business, nothing is more important than having somebody be able to go to work.”
Buckelew seems to have fewer mixed feelings about the project’s prospects.
“We get a lot of reports about what’s going on,” he said. “It’s a hard process, but we’re meeting goals one step at a time. I’m very confident that we will have a celebration very shortly. The holdup mainly is financing, getting that out of the way. Look, it’s a big operation. We’re talking about a couple of billion dollars going in there. There are going to be 9,000 to 12,000 full-time employees. It will be a great thing for the state, and it will be a destination for the whole country — and maybe the world — to this location. It’s hard, but it’s going to get done, hopefully.”
Triple Five, the company that took over the site in 2011 after Xanadu floundered, is counting on a $1.15 billion bond issuance to pay for about half of the remaining construction costs. Institutional investors would purchase two revenue streams: one related to a tax break granted by the state, and the other a redirection of the bulk of the payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, from East Rutherford to the developer.
But the sale of the bonds has missed deadlines, with the state of the U.S. bond market, legal technicalities and a need to finalize the private investment portion of the financial plan all having been blamed for the delays.
Triple Five’s most recent estimate on when the complex will open is fall of 2018. Children’s role-playing attraction KidZania, recently added as a tenant, announced a 2019 opening date for the project.
Fontoura concedes that maintaining positive sentiments about the project — which once again has been virtually dormant since December — is not always easy.
“There is so much promise for the region, but it is getting much more difficult to still believe in it,” said Fontoura, a Democrat who was first elected sheriff in 1990. “I’m incredibly hopeful that it is still going to work, but the frustration — well, I can’t even explain it anymore. It seems too far along, and there is too much of a commitment for it not to happen. It would be one of the worst things ever if we don’t complete the thing — just a catastrophe. I just hope I’m still alive when it opens.”
Buckelew dismissed frequent media reports about “the death of the American mall” due to online shopping, saying that American Dream “is more than a mall.”
Triple Five’s scheduled entertainment offerings include a 639,000-square-foot indoor water and amusement park complex; an NHL-sized skating rink; a performing arts center; an observation wheel similar to the London Eye; an aquarium; a Legoland Discovery Center; and the first indoor skiing and snowboarding park in North America.
Buckelew also cited the project’s location compared with Triple Five’s Mall of America shopping and entertainment site in Bloomington, Minn., which attracts about 40 million visitors annually.
“This is a sensational piece of property, with millions and millions of people coming in,” said Buckelew, chairman of the powerful Conner Strong & Buckelew insurance brokerage. “If you talk about Minnesota, everybody has to fly in. They don’t have the kind of population that we have here.”