The day after the city council meeting Vaccaro and Councilman Harris gave Johnny Cash a tour of the oceanfront, including the iconic Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall. Cash was impressed by the possibilities of Asbury Park’s future and a story was written in the Asbury Park Press about his visit, as shown in part 1 of this series Welcome to Vaccaroland.
Bonding in Bimini
Bimini is a small outer island in the westernmost part of the Bahamian chain and is situated about 50 miles east of Miami. It is the closest island of the Bahamas to the United States and on the edge of the gulf stream, making it ideal for big game fishing; a place where you can catch Blue Fin Tuna and Marlin weighing well over 500 lbs. More records have been set in Bimini than anywhere else in the world. Ernest Hemingway lived on Bimini in the mid-1930’s where big game fishing inspired some of his most famous works, such as The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in The Stream.
Henry had been fishing off the coast of Bimini since 1960 and would go a few times a year as a way to unwind and recharge. He invited Bob Wootten, Cash’s lead guitar player and Earl Poole Ball, his piano player to join him in 1981. The men enjoyed it so much they suggested that he invite Johnny and they made their fishing trips to Bimini a regular visit on the calendar. The men would fish during the day and have impromptu jams at the Fishing Club at night. There was a market near the marina where the locals would sell merchandise to visiting tourists. Henry noticed one of them selling T-shirts sporting the slogan, “Save the Bales.” He looked at it inquisitively and then shrugged it off thinking it must be an ‘insider’ thing. One day while they were out on one of their escapades, with Henry strapped into the fighting chair hoping to reel in the catch of the day, they heard Captain Jimmy yell to his first mate, “Willie, get the flying gaff, I see some square-headed grouper floating in the weed line!” (A flying gaff is an 8-foot pole with a giant hook on the end, attached to a ¾ inch rope. A weed line is formed when weeds and sea-grass collect where two dissimilar currents meet each other.) Henry and the other men had no idea what they were talking about, but as Captain Jimmy slowed the boat down, they watched Willie pull a 50-pound bale of marijuana wrapped in several layers of black plastic onto the boat. Then they saw a few more and Willie scooped them up as well. Apparently, a drug plane had dropped them into the water the night before, expecting them to be picked up by their retriever on a cigarette boat, although for some unknown reason it never happened. The bales also had tracking devices so they could be easily found by the boat. In the 1970s and 80s Bimini was a haven for illegal drug trafficking; a mid-point from Colombia to Miami. With seven bales of square-headed grouper on board, it was Captain Jimmy and his first mate Willie, who hooked the catch of the day!
Henry first met Ernie Anastos when he was the anchorman for WABC-TV news in New York. Ernie is from the New England area, but his wife is from Asbury Park. Back in the 1960’s Ernie was in the Army and stationed at Fort Monmouth, NJ. One Sunday he decided to seek out a Greek Orthodox Church and the closest one at the time was in Asbury Park. It was there that he met and fell in love with, his wife Kelly Coutros, who also happened to be the Pastor’s daughter. Kelly went to Asbury Park High School and was in the same class as Henry’s brother, Sebastian. It was in 1983 that Henry was introduced to Ernie at a lunch meeting held at the Deal Golf and Country Club through their mutual friend, George Michaels of Michael’s Restaurant in Asbury Park. Another gentleman who also attended the meeting was Dick Levy, Vice President of the real estate firm Cushman and Wakefield, based in New York City. Dick was a close friend of Ernie’s and he brought him to the meeting to learn about the new redevelopment project in Asbury Park that Henry was pursuing.
The deal on the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel had recently closed and he was looking to put an investment group together to help cover the expense of the renovations. Ernie, having a history in Asbury Park, was on board right from the start. It was not long after the partnership with Johnny Cash and June Carter was created that Ernie Anastos became a partner as well. He was excited to see the city come back to life and eager to do whatever he could to help the project move forward. At the time, there weren’t many local banks willing to lend money to investors in Asbury Park due to the history of mismanaged government and a slow recovery from the riots just ten years earlier. Even though Henry had secured funds from Cash, Anastos, and other limited partners totaling $3.6 million, he was still having trouble getting a bank to commit to loaning the additional necessary funds.
One weekend Ernie Anastos came to visit his in-laws in Asbury Park and when he learned that Henry had a meeting with Bill Robertson, the president of First National Bank in Toms River on Monday morning. He insisted on joining him. When they arrived at the bank, the two men were escorted into a large conference room with several board members in attendance. Ernie’s presence and commitment to Asbury Park had impressed the bank so much that they agreed to a $4.5 million mortgage loan that day. There was only one problem: they needed $6 million and the bank was already at their legal limit for lending on a single project. Suddenly Bill Robertson got an idea. He picked up the phone and called Marine Midland Bank in Buffalo New York. He spoke to the bank president and got a commitment from them for the remaining $1.5 million over the phone. They now had their needed $6 million in secured funds, all thanks to Ernie Anastos.
A Joint Venture
With the financing in place, the renovation of the hotel was now underway. All 450 rooms were completely gutted with the exception of the banquet rooms on the second floor, which were restored to their original elegance of the 1920’s including making the plaster molds to recreate the ornamental ceilings. The original rooms were very small so they reconstructed the layout and increased the size of the rooms in order to be more competitive in the market. They also created a 1,300 sq ft luxury suite for Johnny and June on the 8th floor’s South East wing overlooking the ocean and the Paramount Theater.
Now that things were moving forward with the hotel, Henry’s focus turned to the beachfront. He still needed to find a joint venture partner for the redevelopment of the Paramount Theatre, Convention Hall, and the entire boardwalk. Vaccaro had a mid-size company that was capable of doing large-scale projects; for years he’d been constructing multi-million dollar projects all over the state. What he didn’t have was the capital to finance a project of that caliber. He needed a major player, an investor or partner at the highest level who could finance the project on their own collateral. Anastos and Levy made efforts to help Henry find a partner. After meeting with a few big developers (one of them being Donald Trump) and not having any luck, Dick Levy put him in touch with Joseph Carrabetta. Carrabetta was a major developer from Connecticut who was developing a similar project in the seashore town of Revere Massachusetts, which made him the perfect fit. After vetting him financially, Vaccaro discovered that Carabetta had exactly what he was looking for: experience developing a beachfront community and a strong portfolio.
As for the seven bales of square-headed grouper Captain Jimmy took it to the backwaters of Bimini where it was sold for $3000 per bale. Since this happened over 25 years ago the statute of limitations has expired, leaving Captain Jimmy off the hook and with a very profitable day!
To Be Continued…
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