NEW BRUNSWICK — These days, the State Theatre features plays, the ballet, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and shows by big-name entertainers such as Kathy Griffin, Harry Connick Jr. and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
There was a time when the main performers were porn stars. The historic theater on Livingston Avenue survived in the 1970s as an X-rated movie house.
A private, nonprofit group called the New Brunswick Development Corp. stepped in to save the State Theatre and return it to its Roaring Twenties opulence by investing $4 million for renovations in 1988. The following year, it spent $6 million to revive the adjacent Crossroads Theatre and George Street Playhouse, helping to revitalize New Brunwick’s entire theater district.
Now, the organization credited with leading a broader resurgence of New Brunswick’s downtown is being touted as a model for rejuvenating an Atlantic City reeling from the loss of 8,000 jobs and four casino closings last year.
Chris Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corp., known locally as Devco, predicted a similar entity could transform Atlantic City block by block with hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment.
Paladino has been part of a series of Atlantic City economic summits organized by Gov. Chris Christie to solve the resort town’s financial crisis. Paladino was one of the authors of a summit report, released in November, that recommended creating an Atlantic City Devco.
Paladino explained that New Brunswick’s Devco has been a success by combining its forces with private developers, public agencies, Rutgers University and corporations such as pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. As a private corporation, Devco is not bound by the requirements of New Jersey’s public-bidding laws, allowing it to operate more freely than government development agencies.
Devco projects could be fast-tracked in Atlantic City. However, a Devco is not seen as an overnight cure for the city, but rather a steady rebuilding of the economy mimicking New Brunswick’s revival.
The summit report recommends redirecting at least $10 million annually from the Atlantic City Alliance to finance a Devco in the first three years. The alliance receives $30 million annually from the casinos to market the city, but it would be disbanded under proposals to redistribute its funding to help Atlantic City through its financial woes.
There has been no formal movement by the state to create an Atlantic City Devco. Mayor Don Guardian has not embraced the idea, saying the city’s redevelopment projects are already led by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a state agency funded by a 1.25 percent tax on casino revenue.
“I would hate to see another bureaucratic organization formed when the state and county are already overseeing development in the city. But if the CRDA ever goes away, it might be worth considering,” Guardian said.
Paladino stressed that an Atlantic City Devco would complement the CRDA, not replace it. The CRDA, for instance, could use its government power of eminent domain to acquire property that would be redeveloped by a Devco.
Guardian fears Atlantic City would be stuck with only token representation on a Devco, a scenario he called unacceptable. He also argued that a Devco would lack the transparency of a public development agency. New Jersey agencies fall under strict requirements for contract bidding and requests for proposals. The state Open Public Records Act is another vehicle that subjects government agencies to more scrutiny.
New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill, now in his 25th year, said he has never had any serious conflicts with Devco during his time in office. Cahill noted that New Brunswick’s Devco must obtain local approvals for its projects, ensuring that the city maintains oversight.
Cahill is convinced that without Devco, “New Brunswick certainly wouldn’t be what it is today.”
Pointing to New Brunswick’s ties with Rutgers and Johnson & Johnson, Paladino believes an Atlantic City Devco could develop a similar relationship with Stockton University and AtlantiCare to help revive the resort town.
Stockton is converting the old Showboat Casino Hotel into a new Atlantic City campus, while AtlantiCare is the city’s leading health care provider. Stockton and AtlantiCare are part of the CRDA’s “Eds and Meds” strategy — short for education and medical — to redevelop sections of the city’s Tourism District.
Since it was created in 1976, New Brunswick’s Devco has overseen the development of nearly $1.8 billion in projects. It has developed or renovated a series of government buildings, hotels, a community center, academic facilities and student housing for Rutgers, apartments, condominiums, three theaters and even a seminary.
Paladino said the State, Crossroads and George Street theaters collectively draw about 300,000 people a year. He recalled one incident in the theater district that symbolized New Brunswick’s transformation from a run-down, crime-ridden town in the 1960s and ’70s to a hip cultural haven these days.
“I was walking along the street one night, and a car pulled up. Steven Spielberg got out. He was there to see Amy Irving,” Paladino said of the director attending a performance by his then-wife at the State Theatre.
One of the business anchors of the theater district is the Stage Left restaurant, an upscale eatery that opened in 1992 and now includes the tony Catherine Lombardi cocktail bar on the second floor.
Mark Pascal, who co-owns Stage Left with business partner Francis Schott, said he was too frightened to venture out at night in New Brunswick when he was a Rutgers student in the 1980s.
“In 1983, I came to college at a challenging time for this city. If you told me I would open a business on this block nine years later, I would have said you were crazy. I wouldn’t even walk on this street,” Pascal said.
Encouraged by what he said was New Brunswick’s Devco-led revival, Pascal invested nearly $2 million to add the Catherine Lombardi cocktail bar to Stage Left in 2005. Patrons can sip $14 cocktails at the bar — named after Pascal’s grandmother — while admiring the view of the boutique Heldrich Hotel, the former blighted hotel that scared Pascal when he was a Rutgers student.
Devco created the Heldrich in 2007 with a $120 million makeover.
Rutgers, also based in New Brunswick, continues to be transformed by Devco projects. Paladino envisions the same thing happening between an Atlantic City Devco and Stockton, although on a smaller scale.
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