Sam Plumeri

Trenton’s Waterfront Park

Marriott Hotel

Mercer County Arena

Corrections or additions?

This article by David McDonough was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 7,

1999. All rights reserved.

Days & Nights of Thunder

It was fitting that the rain held off until just after

the ceremony. Once the statue of Samuel J. Plumeri Sr. was dedicated

in the square outside Mercer County Waterfront Park one Sunday last

month, the umbrellas went up. That is how it is when someone is both

celebrated and mourned at the same time.

Sam Plumeri Sr. died last September at the age of 84, shortly after

the season ended for his beloved Trenton Thunder. It did not surprise

anyone that he waited until the season was over to move on; as co-owner

of the franchise he had not missed a game until his last illness,

and he never failed to visit the clubhouse after the game to congratulate

or console his boys. He took great pleasure in the success of the

Thunder, and no one had a better right. No single person was as responsible

for bringing baseball, and a touch of prosperity, back to the city.

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Sam Plumeri

Sam Plumeri was born and raised in Trenton, the grandson of Sicilian

immigrants. His father, Joseph, was in real estate, and was part owner

of the Trenton Giants, the minor-league club, which in 1950 closed

forever its operation out of Trenton’s now-vanished Dunn Field. Even

the presence of a young phenom named Willie Mays had not been enough

to save that franchise. Sam Plumeri, who played ball at Immaculate

Conception High School and at the Pennington School, and who later

played semi-pro ball ("a fast little outfielder," says his

son Paul Plumeri), never let go of the idea of bringing a team back

to town.

Plumeri took a business degree at Rider College, and worked for years

as assistant to the state treasurer. In the 1950s, he took over his

father’s real-estate firm, and had a successful new career as the

head of the Samuel Plumeri Sr. Realty Company. He also became well-known

for his political and civic activities. From 1957 to 1959, he served

on the Trenton City Commission, the forerunner of today’s City Council.

He worked with the city’s zoning board and planning board, the Chamber

of Commerce, and other civic groups. All of which put him in the unique

position of being perhaps the only man who could bring baseball back

to a city that had fallen on hard times, sinking to such a low point

where it had become the only state capital in the country with no

hotel, movie theater, or downtown bookstore.

Sam saw baseball as not just a good spectator sport, but the beginning

of an economic revival. At the age of 79, when most people are cranking

up the heat, Sam cranked up the juice and went to work. "That’s

the extraordinary thing about this story," says his son Paul.

"To come up with this idea and see it through when you are pushing

80."

Anyone can have an idea; making the notion come to fruition

is another thing. Sam Plumeri had two things going for him: vision

and the ability to open doors. Who else could walk into Mercer County

Executive Bob Prunetti’s office, sit down and say, "I have this

idea"? If outside investors had strolled into town with checkbooks,

it’s fair to say that they would have been met with a great deal of

skepticism.

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Trenton’s Waterfront Park

It’s also not unreasonable to think that after dealing with the red

tape of Mercer County and the city of Trenton, anyone from the outside

might have thrown up their hands in disgust and taken a walk. But

Sam Plumeri, who knew every inch and, it seemed, every politician

and every citizen of the city, could plant the seed, and find a way

to get things done. In late August, 1993, the Mercer County Board

of Freeholders voted 6-1 to approve a $12 million bond for Waterfront

Park. And so, on September 29, 1993, armed with a group of co-investors,

the blessing of professional organized baseball’s Eastern League,

which agreed to award a franchise to the city, and the enthusiastic

backing of Prunetti (whose importance to getting the project started

and completed cannot be overemphasized) and Trenton mayor Doug Palmer,

Sam Plumeri watched as the first shovelfuls of dirt were removed from

the abandoned waterfront on Route 29 that is now home to the Thunder,

a Double-A minor league franchise, two steps below the big leagues.

It wasn’t just visions of ball clubs that danced in Sam Plumeri’s

head. He had a sense that the whole city of Trenton, could revitalize,

capitalizing on the ballpark’s success.

Mercer County Waterfront Park almost opened on April 27, 1994. That

was the first scheduled home game for the Thunder. Rain and poor drainage

(a problem that plagued the stadium throughout the first season; it

was expensively but permanently fixed over the following winter) forced

the cancellation of the game. But the important fact was the people

came. Approximately 7,000 customers showed up for that aborted opening,

and they kept on coming for the next five years. Thunder games routinely

played before sell-out crowds; since that first game, over 2 million

fans have passed through the turnstiles. Following the 1998 season,

the Thunder were named Organization of the Year in Double-A baseball.

It was a fitting tribute to Sam’s vision. His son, Joseph Plumeri,

speaking at the recent dedication of the statue, remembered his father

gazing out over the packed stadium on the first Father’s Day game

and saying, "Look what good we have done here."

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Marriott Hotel

But the most extensive tribute to Sam Plumeri is perhaps yet to come.

The success of Waterfront Park has led to increased interest in investing

in Trenton. Katmandu, a nightclub housed in an old factory on the

waterfront near the stadium, has been a great success. Longstanding

plans to build a hotel in Trenton may be finally coming to fruition

in the form of a 199-room Marriott hotel and conference center to

be built on the site of a state-owned Lafayette Street parking lot.

Last week Governor Whitman signed bills into law authorizing the state

to lend Trenton $5 million for the hotel project, and transferring

the lot on which the hotel will stand from state to city ownership

for $675,000.

The plan is to create a private/public partnership for the $50 million

hotel, with $30 million coming from privately marketed bonds, a $2.5

million loan from the state Economic Developmental Authority, and

$16 million coming from the Trenton Parking Authority. The city has

also received $450,000 from the State Urban Enterprise Zone program

to help pay for readying the site. This state money will pay for relocating

water utilities and demolishing the three-acre parking lot on which

the hotel will stand.

The question of why people will pay to stay in Trenton is still being

addressed. Recently, the president and CEO of the Annapolis, Maryland,

Conference and Visitors Bureau spoke before the Mercer County Chamber

of Commerce, citing the parallels of the two cities: both state capitals,

both rich with history and waterfronts, both with the potential to

become profitable tourist attractions.

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Mercer County Arena

Then there is the Mercer County Arena at South Broad Street, Hamilton

Avenue, and Route 129. Opening of the $60 million, 8,600-seat sporting

arena is planned for October, with two minor league sports franchises

in place, the Trenton Titans hockey team, and basketball’s Shooting

Stars. On a positive note, Sovereign Bank has just bought the arena name, but sales of season tickets and high-priced

club seats, on which

any franchise depends for a large part of its guaranteed income, have

been sluggish, particularly for the Shooting Stars, who have, according

to reports, sold less than 10 percent of their club seats, and only

1,100 season tickets. Independent minor league franchises are a much

tougher sell than organized ones — the Thunder has all the resources

of major league baseball behind it.

The hockey Titans and the basketball Shooting Stars, and the minor

leagues to which they belong, are pretty much on their own. The Shooting

Stars certainly seem like a better bet than the last minor league

basketball team to try to gain a foothold in Trenton. The Shooting

Stars are headed by Herbert Greenberg, CEO of Caliper Inc. on Mount

Lucas Road, a personnel consulting firm that has helped many major

league sports teams select players. But unlike hockey, a minor league

basketball team will have to compete for fans with a plethora of central

New Jersey college teams. And the International Basketball League

in which the Shooting Stars will play is a far-flung enterprise, requiring

shuttling of teams from Trenton to San Diego and points in between.

Still, if the hockey and basketball teams at the arena can succeed,

the smile on the statue in front of what is now officially called

"Samuel J. Plumeri Sr. Field at Mercer County Waterfront Park"

will grow even wider, if possible. In the bronze sculpture, designed

by James Gafgen at Johnson Atelier in Hamilton, and paid for by private

donors, Sam is shown seated with his arm around a child, while another

child stands behind him. Deliberately, a seat was left open next to

Sam, and within minutes of the dedication, children — and some

adults, too — were having their picture taken there. Nothing would

have pleased Sam more. On the plaque in front of the statue are the

words: "I think we’re going to have a good ball club this year."

That was his credo.

And if a good city — that is to say a prosperous, thriving city

— emerges from that idea that Sam Plumeri had nearly half a century

ago, then that will be his lasting legacy.

— David McDonough

Trenton Thunder, Waterfront Park, 609-394-8326. The Thunder

play Binghamton Friday, July 9, at 7:05 p.m., continuing Saturday,

July 10, at 7:05 p.m. , Sunday, July 11, at 1:05 p.m., and

Monday, July 12, at 7:05 p.m.


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