Taking the next step?
Loew’s could become Jersey City’s PAC
by Al Sullivan
Reporter staff writer
Feb 09, 2014 | 10661 views | 1 1 comments | 106 106 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A GRAND DAME ON JOURNAL SQUARE – The Loew’s Theatre can become the center of arts for Jersey City, officials say
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Local legend claims that Hoboken’s famed crooner Frank Sinatra decided to pursue a career in singing after seeing Bing Crosby perform at the Loew’s Theatre in 1934.

As with many kids at the time, Sinatra had come to the Journal Square theatre (via public transportation) because that part of Jersey City was the place to go for entertainment. People flocked there from every corner of Hudson County.

Although efforts have been underway for more than two decades to restore the old theater, progress has been slow and funding sparse.

This week Mayor Steven Fulop announced that the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency and the City would seek proposals for restoration, renovation and professional management of the Loew’s Theater, in an effort to make the historic institution a Mecca for arts again.

“The Loews Theatre will be the centerpiece of the revitalization of Journal Square,” Fulop said. “A world class performance venue will not only bring life and culture back to Journal Square, but will be a magnet for addition development and tourism.”

First opened in 1929, the Loew’s seats 3,021 and features an ornate lobby. In 1986, the theatre was closed and sold to a developer who planned to demolish the building. However, local preservationists led by the Friends of the Loews ultimately saved the theatre, which is listed on the National Historic Register. The City of Jersey City purchased the Loew’s Theatre in 1993 and the Friends of the Loew’s were granted the task of restoring the theater. Currently, the Friends of the Loew’s show a few dozen movies annually and hold special events.
“The Loews Theatre will be the centerpiece of the revitalization of Journal Square.” – Mayor Steve Fulop.
“If we are going to put millions of dollars of taxpayer money into creating a world class theater, we need to maximize the chances of success with a public and fair process,” said Mayor Fulop. “As we have said to the Friends of the Loew’s, no group should feel entitled and we are not committed to any individual group. We are committed to the city and committed to Jersey City getting the best management for the Loew’s.”

Councilman Richard Boggiano applauded the move, but said he doesn’t want to take away from those who have fought to keep the Loew’s open during the last two decades

“I have been the biggest support of the Loew’s becoming the Jewel of Journal Square,” he said. “All during both campaigns I ran, I always talked about the Loew’s. I definitely don’t want outsiders coming in and taking the running away from those who have kept the Loew’s open during the years. Lack of money and political support have stopped the Loew’s from becoming a center piece of Jersey City’s revival. It’s time to stop the politics and move forward.”

Freeholder Bill O’Dea, although a strong supporter of Loew’s, has been critical of the slow progress towards restoration, and reserving of Open Space Trust Funds for work that is slow to take place.

A long history

Like most theaters constructed during the movie industry’s golden age, the Loew’s was constructed to show mostly films made by MGM studios. Its construction followed the construction of similar theaters in New York. One was built a year earlier in Newark as well. When sound movies came into fashion, the chain of Loew’s theaters became show places not only for movies, but live entertainment, lavish entertainment places that competed against other chains such as the Fabian Theaters in Paterson and Hoboken.

Located across the street from a train station, the Loew’s Theatre in Jersey City became a destination for many throughout Hudson County and beyond throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Anti-monopoly laws in the late 1940s forced studios to sell off their theaters, and combined with the rise of television, development of suburbia, and later video rentals, this forced most theaters to economize, offering a number of smaller venues that showed a number of films at the same time to differing audiences. Places like Loew’s – seen as dinosaurs – either converted or went extinct.

Loew’s closed its doors in 1986 and was slated for demolition when a number of people came forward to save it.

In 1993, Jersey City purchased the building. The New Jersey Register of Historic Places gave it landmark status. The Friends of the Loew’s signed a lease, cleared out the debris and began the slow process of restoring it, offering some programming during the years that followed.

Some money for redevelopment, but progress was slow

The city gave the project $1 million to begin renovations. Another million came from the New Jersey Historic Trust. Some corporations also donated to the effort. Over the last decade, the project has seen funding from the Hudson Count Open Space Trust Fund, but work did not move ahead quickly.

O’Dea said often money was set aside and not used promptly, something that caused him some concern since this meant projects elsewhere the county could not be funded.

“While I’m a big supporter of Loews Theater, I believe that we should not be funding something there unless they are ready to do the work,” O’Dea said.

Part of the problem is that much of the restoration work relied on volunteers, who either lacked the specific skills or the time to invest in the labor-intensive project.

With redevelopment underway in Journal Square, a number of people felt the pace of restoration needed to move ahead more quickly, seeing the Loews as having the potential to serve Jersey City and Hudson County as a performance center similar to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Tying abatements to some new redevelopment in Journal Square, the city asked for donations to the restoration of Loew’s. KRE, which is developing a massive project called J2 on Pavonia Avenue, has agreed to donate $2.5 million to help restore the theatre.

According to a press release issued by the city this week, the renovations will restore aesthetic and historic appeal of the facility while also allowing the maximum operating capacity and acceptable level of safety for all patrons. Currently, the balcony is unusable, fire exits are not functioning, and a sprinkler system and smoke detection system need to be installed. The management aspect of the RFP anticipates a profit sharing agreement between the management firm and the city.

“A number of nationally-recognized entertainment venue management firms have expressed interest in the Loew’s and we are looking forward to bringing an experienced and reputable firm to Jersey City as we bring the Loew’s to the next level,” Fulop said.

The RFP specifies what the city expects. This will include at least 30 community performances or events from local artists, senior citizens, schools, lecturers, academic programs or cultural celebrations. The bid would also require at least 20 musical performances by nationally recognized artists, ten theatrical or other stage performance, ten comedy performances and 20 other performances or events.

The contract would also allow for 20 events to be sponsored and produced privately by Friends of the Loew’s Inc. and would allow other private bookings as long as they do not conflict with other scheduled events.

“I support taking the Loew’s to the next level as a performing arts center,” O’Dea said. “I am happy to see the city and Fulop committing the capital money to finish the work so that can happen. What remains to be resolved is defining the proper role for the Friends of the Loews going forward. I believe that they can and should play a significant role.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.

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February 12, 2014
The Jersey City Reporter’s recent story in which Jersey City tried to justify its desire to push Friends of Loew’s aside failed to explain a most important fact in the ongoing restoration and operation of the Loew’s: Since 2004, the City of Jersey City has been obligated in an agreement with FOL to find funding for the very repairs that the City is now insinuating FOL is at fault for not making -- vital work such as new sprinklers and emergency lighting, fixing fire escapes, and other safety upgrades to a building the City owns. But for ten years, the City has failed to meet this fundamental obligation.

Back in 2004, Jersey City admitted that until this most critical work is done, it’s impossible for Friends of the Loew’s – or anybody else – to operate the Loew’s to its full potential. So it is less than fair for the City to now be complaining that FOL hasn’t done enough when the cause is the City’s own failure to do what it is supposed to do.

Unfortunately, The Reporter’s story implied that FOL’s use of volunteers has been a cause of slow progress. This is literally an inversion of reality. Friends of the Loew’s has been left holding the bag by the City with a theater that can’t operate as it should, and without the promised support from our landlord and partner – the City – which is a prerequisite to approaching private donors. (Who would even think about making a major contribution to the Loew’s when the City fails to keep its commitments to its own building?) To keep the Loew’s going despite these hurdles, FOL has created a unique operating model that uses the extraordinary dedication of volunteers. The hard work AND many professional skills that they freely give help FOL deal with the City’s lack of dedication to its own building.

In fact, the recurring theme in the Loew’s story has been the need for FOL to overcome a lack of vision, lack of resolve and – periodically – lack of good faith by the City. Consider the record:

Way back in 1987, it was FOL that led the effort to stop the City’s plan to tear down the Loew’s. We defined the idea, which Mayor Steven Fulop now quotes as his own, that the Loew’s is a cultural and economic resource for our community.

By the time we’d made the City understand the value of the Loew’s, the Theatre had fallen into total disrepair. The City bought the Loew’s knowing it would take at least $4 million just to get it open and minimally operational again. But the City didn’t want to spend the money, so FOL helped the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation win a $1 million preservation grant and managed to persuade the reluctant City to provide the required match.

In 1994 the City tasked JCEDC (not FOL, as The Reporter said) with spending the $2 million. But this was nowhere near enough to get the Loew’s open again -- and in a Catcbh-22, the City said it wouldn’t give another dime until the Loew’s was open. It was FOL that provided the way out of this dead end by creating a unique program of volunteer labor and raising our own money for supplies to make repairs for which the City was refusing to pay.

By the end of 2001, we’d made it possible to open the Loew’s for limited events. But even though additional repairs were needed, the City pressed FOL to put on more and more shows. So to do this, we expanded our volunteer program from renovations to also cover operations.

In 2004, the City finally gave FOL the lease in which it promised to fund the repairs needed to enable the Loew’s to be fully operational. But the City didn’t come up with the money; instead, just one year later the City tried to get out of the lease by claiming it wasn’t sure what it had signed.

After wasting four years, the City finally admitted that FOL’s lease was valid, and even promised to provide more funding than originally called for. The City said it expected to use Urban Enterprise Zone money, but then claimed it didn’t have enough UEZ money on account with the State.

Then in 2010 the State took away the $11 million in unused UEZ money Jersey City had – which would have been more than the Loew’s needed.

In 2005 and 2007 FOL received generous grants from Hudson County for additional repairs at the Loew’s, but the City’s challenge to our lease prevented us from moving ahead at the time. In 2009, the City offered to administer these grants for FOL along with the work it was pledged to fund. But after losing the UEZ money, the City asked FOL to plead with the County to allow its grant funds to cover some of the most critical safety work the City was supposed to pay for. The Reporter’s story made it sound as if FOL has held up the County grants, but it is the City that, incredibly, STILL hasn’t moved on most of this work. And just last week, the City told FOL that it would sit on the County money even longer while it “considered options”.

Despite all the years of this “one step forward, two back” behavior from the City, under FOL’s management the Loew’s hosted 79 events last year alone. And FOL is currently in the middle of a major technical upgrade to stage lighting and sound.

FOL’s stewardship provides the determination AND ability to keep the Loew’s going no matter what – even the City’s failure to stick to its own plan. That lesson especially resonates here in Jersey City, where resilient civic groups have for decades made up for shortcomings by City administrations. And it proves that FOL is the guarantee for the Loew’s that Mayor Fulop says he wants Jersey City to have. So why is Jersey City trying to marginalize us?

-- Colin Egan, Director, Loew’s Jersey Theatre