Atlantic City could become the new home for the Garden State Film Festival.
Based in Asbury Park since its inception in 2003, the film festival draws an estimated 30,000 people a year to the Monmouth County shore town that's been struggling for years to reverse an economic downspin. Disagreement between the city government and a developer may leave the event without a major theater, and organizers say they're prepared to take the festival elsewhere.
"You're the front-runner right now, obviously. That's due to your infrastructure, your wonderful hotels, the transportation, the entertainment, just everything," said Diane Raver, the festival's executive director, of Atlantic City. "You have everything to take us to the next level, which is very interesting to us."
Local officials said they would be happy to bring another shoulder-season event to the city. The four-day festival traditionally takes place in April and uses a number of venues in Asbury Park for rotating screenings. The festival's website advertises the 2014 event as scheduled for April 3-6.
Still, details on how the festival could be set up in Atlantic City and what financial incentives the city might offer are few.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority last month took steps toward approving the festival for the resort. No dollar figures are tied to the resolution, which states the authority is considering providing some financial assistance with the hope that the festival will eventually be self-sustaining. Kim Butler, a spokeswoman for the CRDA, said the dollar figure is still unknown.
Raver, a native of Sea Girt, Monmouth County, founded the festival with the late actor Robert Pastorelli, with the goal of highlighting New Jersey's contributions to the film industry. The festival has grown from 3,000 attendees its first year to about 30,000, Raver said.
"Asbury was my cultural mecca as a child. I didn't know much of anything, but I knew film," Raver said.
The impact that Raver's event has had on the city has been significant, and losing it could be devastating, said Tom Gilmour, Asbury Park's director of commerce.
Developer Madison Marquette is facing a Sept. 30 deadline to install a state-mandated sprinkler system at the festival's main hall, the Paramount Theater, but has said the system is too costly and has noted other grievances with Asbury Park. That could cause the theater to shut down this fall, Gilmour said.
"The real devastation is that the festival comes in the offseason for us, so many of our vendors depend on that event," said Gilmour, who estimated the event pumps more than $824,000 into the city each year.
Asbury Park provides city venues and services to the festival but has never provided any financial incentives, Gilmour said. Instead, the festival survives on donations, sponsorships and grants, Raver said.
But the festival's tax filings show the event is far from lucrative. In the year ending in June 2012, the festival took in $104,418 in revenue but had $109,718 in expenses and ended up losing $5,300. In 2011, it lost $904, and in 2010 it lost $10,818.
Raver wouldn't say whether the festival is seeking a one-time incentive or an ongoing subsidy, but said there's no doubt the event could use help. She is not paid by the organization, according to the tax filings.
"It could be a tipping point for us. It's certainly a consideration," Raver said. "That's all I'm allowed to say about that."
Atlantic City is up against two northern New Jersey towns for the right to host the film festival. Newark and New Brunswick are also in the running, said Raver, who declined to say whether any financial offers have been made by those cities.
Dreena Whitfield, press secretary for the city of Newark, did not respond to requests for comment.
Russell Marchetta, a spokesman for New Brunswick, said the Middlesex County city hasn't entertained any formal proposals, but after reading media accounts of the festival's dilemma told organizers the city would be interested in hosting.
Marchetta touted New Brunswick's theater offerings and the nearby Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University as reasons why the festival would be a good fit in the city.
Meanwhile, Atlantic City may have its advantages. The CRDA and the Atlantic City Alliance have been focused on bringing an increased arts presence to the city. The agencies have invested in developing unused tracts of land into temporary art parks.
A sculpture walk is planned for the Marina District, and the CRDA has partnered with The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey to open an art retail facility on the ground floor of The Wave parking garage this fall.
Raver said she's been paying close attention to those developments and is familiar with working in a city that's trying to develop an arts presence.
"I think you can have an arts presence anywhere," Raver said. "We don't come without some experience."
A decision on the festival's location is expected by early fall, Raver said.
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