Several years ago, Emanuel Stern, president of Hartz Mountain Industries' Real Estate Division, had a vision for the south end of Secaucus.
He thought it would make an ideal site for movie and TV studios.
This was not a new idea. Mayor Dennis Elwell said the concept had been bandied about in discussions as early as 1994, while he was on the Town Council. But Stern in 1997 put his wishes on the record when he spoke at a meeting of the Industrial Office Real Estate Brokers Association, saying that Secaucus was an ideal location for such an activity. He pointed to other media who had similar ideas, such as WWOR-TV, which had opened its studios in Secaucus in 1990, and MSNBC, which had opened studios in Secaucus in 1996.
Stern's vision was a little ahead of its time. WWOR struggled early on with some programming because transportation in and out of midtown Manhattan was a nightmare, with guests often spending hours in rush-hour traffic seeking to get to broadcasts.
Stern's vision, however, took a giant leap forward last week when the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission voted to authorize up to $50,000 for a study on the viability of movie studios being located in southern Secaucus.
Although Stern had cited the nearness to Manhattan as one of the chief advantages of making Secaucus into "a Burbank East," the recent opening of the Secaucus Transfer rail station made this connection more viable, allowing people to access central Manhattan within minutes rather than hours.
The transfer station was the central motivation for the unveiling of a recent concept for redevelopment of other portions of south Secaucus which includes a new retail and residential element rivaled in Hudson County only by the Jersey City Waterfront.
Not a new dream
As early as 1994, local officials in Secaucus speculated as to what kind of development they would like to see in the largely underutilized south end of Secaucus commonly called "The Back Road."
Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, in a short statement before the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission last week, said that as a councilman at the time, the town had looked at an intermodal trucking facility as well as more exciting uses such as a movie studio.
To see if Secaucus might indeed be a viable site for a movie studio, NJMC members voted to authorized a study for an area near the one currently designated as the NJ Transit Village area.
Since most of the remaining land in south Secaucus not figured into the Transit Village plans is owned by Hartz, any plans for a movie studio would likely figure construction on land Stern already controls, thus making his dream that much closer to reality.
"This comes at a very good time," Elwell said, "if we can incorporate these plans into the Transit Village."
The Meadowlands Commission took the possibility of movie studios into consideration when it designated south Secaucus as a redevelopment zone in 1999. The area included in the proposed NJMC study is part of the redevelopment zone. Also included in the zone are the Transit Village area and the wetlands.
The redevelopment zone incorporates an area located nearly Laurel Hill County Park, New County Avenue and the Hackensack River. Some of the property was the previous site of an asphalt plant and other industrial uses. As the result of strong opposition by local officials and residents, the 1999 redevelopment plan stripped away up to 2,000 housing units originally proposed for the area. The area was zoned for light industrial, river recreation, warehouses, hotels and a movie studio.
"Making a home for the film and television industries in the Meadowlands is a smart growth opportunity for the region and the state," said NJMC Chairman Susan Bass Levin. "Considering that $70 million was spun into New Jersey's local economy last year by 801 film and television projects in the state, new production facilities in North Jersey would be a tremendous benefit to residents."
A typical studio often requires about 15 acres and a variety of large structures, officials said.
The state could kick in cash
Assemblyman Anthony Impreveduto said recent legislation out of Trenton could help generate interest in Secaucus as a viable site for a movie studio.
This bill established the New Jersey Film Industry Assistance Program in the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to provide incentives to the film industry by providing grants and low-interest loans and technical expertise to film production or distribution companies to attract more film projects to this State.
Impreveduto said the state would provide financial assistance for companies that shoot at least 70 percent of a film in New Jersey and spend at least 50 percent of the film budget here.
Tom Colitsas, president of C-S-C Communications in South Jersey, said many more producers are deciding to shoot their movies or television productions in New Jersey. Manex Entertainment has plans to open a movie equipment-leasing site in Trenton.
Besides, movies filmed here could also spur additional revenues for other businesses not directly linked to the movie industry.
The proposed study - investigating physical layouts, costs and interest in such a facility - would be conducted with the input and assistance of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission. The cost of the study would not exceed $50,000.
Actors Frank Vincent and Al Sapienza, both slated to appear in upcoming episodes of "The Sopranos,'' appeared before the Meadowlands Commission in support of the studio concept.
Vincent, born and raised in New Jersey, spoke out in support of the study.
"There are a large number of productions that film exterior shots in New Jersey, but then they drive to New York to shoot the interior scenes," Vincent said. "With production facilities in New Jersey, we could hold on to those jobs and the money that is being spent on these projects."
Vincent, known for film roles in Good Fellas, Raging Bull, and Jungle Fever, has deep roots in New Jersey. Family members once ran a gas station in nearby Belleville, and Vincent currently lives with his family in Nutley. Vincent was recently recognized for his film work at a ceremony in Liberty State Park where he received the Back East Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. He is slated to take part in the upcoming season - starting in March - of the television drama The Sopranos.