A brand new boathouse restaurant will open its doors Friday at the South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange.
The restaurant is the latest addition to the 36-acre complex that includes Turtle Back Zoo, Richard J. Codey Arena, a three-story Park N Ride facility, a 300-space surface parking lot, miniGOLF Safari and the Treetop Adventure Course.
"The only thing that was missing was this and that was why it was so important to me," Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. said during a Wednesday press conference inside the restaurant. "We didn't have a restaurant, why do we want people to come here and not have a good place to eat?"
The grand opening comes despite recent criticisms from state and local officials vying for a seat in the upcoming elections.
DiVincenzo fiercely defended the $4 million investment, "We can't wait for the federal government and the state government, we have to be in control of our destiny … I am not going to allow anybody to speak about Essex County."
He did not speculate as to when the investment would be recouped but said the boathouse was part of "an overall picture" and that revenue from the property would benefit the entire complex.
McLoone's will pay the county $22,500 a month to lease the space for 15 years. In addition, McLoone's will pay $12,000 a year for maintenance of the property.
"We're hiring a lot of people and we're paying a lot of money to be here too, it's not just the county handing it to us," said Tim McLoone, owner of the New Jersey Shore-based restaurant group that currently operates six eateries, including five in New Jersey and one in Maryland. He defended the partnership and said so far, he has invested $600,000 in the project, an amount that will reach a full million in the first year.
"We're here to fit into Essex County," he said. Having grown up in Essex County, McLoone said the location brings back old memories. "It's great to be back here, it really is," he said. McLoone moved from Staten Island to East Orange at the age of four, then moved to Orange and South Orange. "I went to Our Lady of Sorrows and Seton Hall Prep ... had my prom at the Short Hills Caterers ... I'm an Essex County boy."
McLoone said the restaurant has something for every price-range and every age. "It's also important that we have pricing that's more inclusive so large members of the Essex County population can feel comfortable in this building." Boasting a large menu that includes lunch, dinner, cocktail hour and Sunday brunch, McLoone said his restaurants aim to "do non-pretentious food that is familiar to people, but we do it better than you do it at home."
The 12,000 square foot restaurant seats 250 guest in its multiple rooms ornamented with dark wooden walls, fire places and model ships. The outdoor area seats an additional 85-100 people and overlooks the Orange Reservoir, owned by the township of Orange.
The area was a point of contention earlier this year when Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins Jr. sued the county for improperly using the space and failing to compensate the township.
Hawkins, though, who attended the press conference, had nothing but praise for the boathouse. "The construction is magnificent, I looked out that window at our reservoir and I never saw it looking any better." He said the reservoir was used for drinking water many years ago but as of late, had "just been sitting there."
DiVincenzo said he has plans to lease the area and create jogging paths and water activities, such as kayaking and paddle boating.
Anthony Puglisi, a spokesman for the county, said the litigation was "in limbo." He said the county is negotiating with city officials to lease the reservoir from Orange, "Rather than proceed with any kind of hearing, now there's an offer on the table." Should the county and Orange sign a lease agreement, the lawsuit would be settled out of court, Puglisi said.
Detailing the agreement, Puglisi said the county would lease the space from Orange for 20 years. Orange would receive $75,000 a year for the first 10 years and $85,000 for the following 10 years.
Hawkins said Orange was eager to work with the county and called the partnership a "blessing."
"We worked out an agreement. This is a partnership," DiVincenzo said. He promised that by next April the first boat will be ready to hit the waterways. "We're going to bring this to life."