On bringing back the diving horse at Steel Pier

ATLANTIC CITY — Steel Pier owners scrapped plans Tuesday to bring back the diving horse after the iconic-yet-controversial entertainment act prompted “disturbing” backlash from animal rights activists.

“We did expect a negative reaction — we’re not surprised by this,” said Tony Catanoso, principal of Steel Pier Associates. “This time around, it’s a little more disturbing, some of the responses we’re getting as far as the way people talk … which hurts their cause, hurts their credibility.”

Catanoso declined to comment Tuesday on whether he had been threatened or to provide more details about the communications that have caused concern.

“We didn’t want the negativity to derail the positive things that are happening,” he said. “Although we’ll preserve history and nostalgia in our own way, we won’t be doing it through the diving horse act.”

Starting in 1929, the attraction featured women riding horses bareback as they descended from a 40-foot wooden platform into a 9-foot pool of water. It ran until 1978. Fifteen years later, Catanoso reintroduced the diving horse for a two-month stint. Former pier owners Trump Entertainment asked him to shut down the show after animal rights activists objected.

Brothers Tony, Charles and William Catanoso and partners Ed Olwell and Paul Steelman bought the 1,000-foot-long structure at auction for $4.2 million in August.

“We’ve got four years and three phases of great things going on, a renovation that won’t be rivaled anywhere in the city, so we’re looking forward to moving forward on a positive note,” Tony Catanoso said Tuesday.

Catanoso referred to the $102 million revitalization scheduled to be completed in summer 2015. He and Steelman announced the return of the diving horse during a presentation for a $6 million loan for the project’s $20 million first phase from the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority on Feb. 1.

About 50,000 people have since signed one of several online petitions against the plan to bring back the diving horse. Catanoso said Tuesday he is aware of the petitions, but not the protest being organized at CRDA headquarters in Atlantic City on Tuesday during the next board meeting.

“They’re certainly within their rights to do that,” he said.

Tracy Chafin, co-organizer of the protest, said she’ll cancel the demonstration.

“We’re glad to hear they’re putting the voices of those who spend tourism dollars first,” Chafin said. “If they don’t have any animal-based entertainment, I’ll be there on opening day to give them my business. And those people who signed the petition are encouraged to give them business to show their appreciation as well. We gratefully say thank you.”

She also was glad the worrisome messages from animal rights advocates ultimately were not counter-productive.

“If we don’t approach one another with respect, then nothing positive is going to happen. We are encouraging, with our movement, politeness and respect, first and foremost,” Chafin said.

Chafin and collaborator Jennifer Mishler’s petition at Change.org was gaining signatures so quickly Tuesday that the website’s counter couldn’t keep up, said Pulin Modi, a senior organizer specializing in animal rights for the Washington, D.C-based, online forum. Five other petitions opposing the same issue had been started with another nearly 4,000 signatures, Modi said Tuesday.

CRDA officials knew about plans for the diving horse when Steel Pier Associates approached them about the project, said Bunny Rixey, real estate director for the agency.

“The issue with animal rights activists stood out like a red flag, that … there might be a problem,” Rixey said Tuesday. “Any question animal rights activists might have, (Steel Pier Associates) had those answers, … but I don’t know (the activists) will ever have that comfort level.”

Under state laws effective a year ago, the CRDA controls planning and development in the Atlantic City Tourism District, which includes the Steel Pier.

Groups including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and The Humane Society of the United States had condemned the diving horse revival and issued statements Tuesday praising the decision to cancel those plans.

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