Jim Dalfonso admits there have been times over the past few years when he's contemplated giving up on the restoration of Somers Point's historic Gateway Playhouse on Bay Avenue.
But on Friday evening, as he flipped the switch to illuminate the theater's brand-new, modern marquee before a group of more than 100 community supporters gathered to celebrate its latest restoration milestone, Dalfonso said those feelings of defeat are now a distant memory.
Dalfonso is the chairman of the Theater Collaborative of South Jersey, a nonprofit formed in 2009 to save the rundown and vacant historic playhouse, which has been closed and boarded up since 2005. The Gateway Playhouse was built in 1910 and operated as a theater from 1977 to 2005.
In 2006, the city of Somers Point purchased the structure to save it from potential demolition, but the city didn't have the funds to revive it, so the building stood there rotting until the group stepped in. A leaky roof, among other issues, led to extensive interior and exterior damage.
Since forming the Theater Collaborative of South Jersey, "in the midst of a terrible economy," its board members have raised more then $570,000 in donations.
The remainder of exterior work on the building involves the installation of new doors and windows currently covered by boards. The interior structural work, including repairs to the roof and rafters, a new foundation for the stage, and the reconfiguring of the lobby and the second floor mezzanine, have also been completed.
The next task will be the electrical work and installing a new heating and cooling system. The goal is to get the theater opened by midsummer 2014, Dalfonso said. The Theater Collaborative of South Jersey is also in the process of looking into acquiring a low-interest loan, which could expedite the process.
The push to form The Theater Collaborative of South Jersey and save the playhouse came after a single donor pledged $600,000 to make it happen. But soon after the group formed, the donor reneged on the offer and left its board members with a conundrum: continue with the effort by raising the funds dollar by dollar, or end their efforts and watch their old friend succumb to a state of disrepair.
Their decision to go forth, though not always made in confidence, has proven to have been the right one, as local support and excitement has continued to grow as the project progresses.
Andrew Latz, the owner of Latz by the Bay, a restaurant located across the street from the playhouse, said it's been exciting to see the playhouse coming back to life before his eyes.
"It's just so nice to see it's being restored to what it had been, and what it should be, as opposed to knocking it down and turning the space into a parking lot or condominiums, (which was a fear when it first closed)," Latz said. "The new facade really makes the goal seem tangible."
Dalfonso said that aside from bringing an increase in art and culture back to Somers Point, the revival of the playhouse will also help boost the local economy, as businesses - particularly the restaurants along Bay Avenue - will benefit from its crowd.
"A small season selling would bring 16,000 people a year to Bay Avenue," he said. "That's a huge economic boost."
Michele Mahoney, co-owner of the Anchorage Tavern, said she too has been watching the project's progression and is looking forward to its reopening.
"Whenever any business comes to town it's a good thing, especially one that compliments us," Mahoney said. "There's nothing that pairs as perfectly as dinner and a show."
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