MARGATE, N.J. — Pachyderm paranoia is rampant. Elephant negotiations have been protracted.
There’s been talk of a hotel, even fears that there’s a move to send Lucy, the beloved wooden elephant, packing from its home overlooking the Decatur Avenue beach, where its giant backside charmingly moons motorists on Atlantic Avenue.
But with a decades-long lease set to expire at the end of December, Margate commissioners and representatives of the Save Lucy Committee have cobbled together a tentative 20-year-deal to keep Lucy operating — and the committee gets to keep all proceeds from the national historic monument, which sits on city land.
The Lucy board is set to vote on the lease at a workshop meeting July 14, but some on the board are expressing concern about its terms, according to sources. Margate commissioners are scheduled to vote on it at their July 18 meeting.
One issue is who actually owns Lucy. The 20-year-lease declares Margate the official owner of the elephant — the Save Lucy Committee has disputed that in the past and claimed the elephant as its own — and would allow the city to select five of the 15 members of the board that oversees operations.
That has set off speculation that the city has more on its mind than preserving the status quo. “Stealing Lucy,” blared the unsubtle Downbeach Buzz website this week.
But city officials say that’s not the case.
“There’s no plan to move the elephant so a hotel can be built in its place,” said City Solicitor John Scott Abbott. “Where we gonna move this elephant?”
The owner of Ventura’s Greenhouse, next to Lucy, has expressed interest in replacing his restaurant with a boutique hotel, a plan that went dormant after an outcry when the city said it would consider a hotel zoning overlay on beachfront land that includes the site where Lucy has stood since 1970. (Before that, the 65-foot-high wooden structure, built in 1881, was two blocks down the road.)
Abbott says there’s been no recent application for a hotel (Margate has no hotels or motels). In any case, Ventura’s plan would not involve moving Lucy. The roadside oddity, which once briefly operated as part of a hotel, now hosts tours through its wooden interior and up to its howdah with an ocean view.
In addition, Commissioner John Amodeo said the added control the city gets in the new lease is not a pretext for trying to oust executive director Rich Helfant, who has overseen Lucy through many a landmark birthday celebration, lightning strike, hurricane, and wedding, and multiple pedicures.
“Lucy is owned by the City of Margate,” Amodeo said. "It’s situated on property of the City of Margate. We’re very proud of the job the Save Lucy Committee does in keeping it up and running as a valued historic monument.
“We’re very proud of Lucy,” Amodeo added. “There’s never been any discussion about not engaging with the Lucy committee.”
Attorney Bill Subin, a member of the Save Lucy board, appeared at the Margate commissioners meeting last week with a draft of a lease that he said had been negotiated by both sides. The commissioners voted to tentatively approve the lease, which allows the Save Lucy board to vote at their meeting on July 14, four days before Lucy celebrates a 138th birthday.
“I think we’re very close to an agreement on a long-term lease with the Save Lucy Committee and the City of Margate,” Subin said at the meeting. “I am quite hopeful for final approval.”
Others, though, said the issue of control had the potential to doom the lease. “The city really wants control of Lucy,” said one source close to the Lucy drama. “The board has a lot of issues with the terms.”
Helfant, in an interview Monday, said the draft of the lease represented about six years of on- and off-again discussions to extend the current 50-year, $1 annual lease. (In September, both sides were accusing the other of not coming to the table. “Tell Lucy to call me,” Mayor Mike Becker said.)
Helfant said that regardless of whether the board votes to approve the lease, “we’re not going to be locked out Jan. 1.”
Abbott said the lease requires the city and the Save Lucy Committee to negotiate extensions every five years so that the lease is always for 20 years, which can aid in securing grants.
“The city wants to have some say as to who sits on the board and the management of the elephant,” Abbott said. "Up to now, it’s been nonexistent. The city’s had virtually no say.
“There’s no nefarious purpose here,” he said. “There’s no underhanded stuff. I know it’s Margate. People like to stir the pot.”
He said there was no move to oust Helfant, who is also president of the Greater Atlantic City LGBT Alliance, and has promoted Lucy at times as a gender-fluid gay icon and flies the rainbow flag. (Lucy is anatomically male.)
“There’s no plot to oust Helfant,” said Abbott. “I believe the prevailing attitude is, he does a pretty good job. There’s no question he puts his heart and soul in it.”