VENTNOR — The Ventnor Square Theatre has moved closer to ushering a modern moviegoing experience into Ventnor now that it has obtained a liquor consumption license.
The city awarded the second of its three licenses — the kind held by restaurants that serve alcohol — to the theater on Nov. 2.
According to Commissioner Lance Landgraf, the Ventnor Square Theatre was the highest of two bidders with an offer of about $91,000. Landgraf said the bid plans to be submitted for final approval at the commission meeting later this month.
“Just the excitement of that taking its next step — of getting that liquor license — is big,” Landgraf said. “We’re happy to have that moving forward.”
Brett DeNafo and his partners, Clint Bunting and Scot Kauffman, purchased the theater on the corner of Ventnor and Weymouth Avenues from Bruce Frank of Frank Investments and reached a settlement on the property Aug. 17.
DeNafo, who revitalized another theater in Stone Harbor, said that the liquor license was a crucial reason why they “took a leap of faith” and decided to redevelop the once-decaying property.
“The theater business has changed. You’ve got to be unique,” he said. You’ve got to be different now. I think that really helps things out a lot.”
DeNafo said they have plans to run a burger bar on the second floor where customers will have the option to bring the food or drinks they order with them inside the theaters. He said having the ability to sell alcohol in Ventnor was essential to this vision.
“If the city didn’t put the liquor licenses, the three up for bid, we probably wouldn’t have been looking at that theater,” DeNafo said.
A referendum passed in November 2016 authorizing the city to grant three licenses, based on its population of about 10,000 full-time residents.
After missing the bid for the first license while they tried to secure the property, DeNafo and his partners set out for the second, which went to auction in September with a minimum bid of $77,100.
“I would say the hurdles now are just about done,” DeNafo said. “Now, we get to the fun stuff and start building the place out.”
Recently stripped down to brick and steel, the building leaves a lot to the imagination. Pedestrians can peer inside the windowless walls and start to project their own ideas as to what a modern theater/restaurant venture might look like, but DeNafo and his partners have a specific plan in mind.
They hope to use all three levels of the building while also staying true to its historic, Art Deco origins.
DeNafo said the building will house three theaters. One main theater will hold about 300 people and two smaller theaters will hold almost 100. Along with a concession stand and bar, the theater will have private rooms available for events.
The second floor restaurant will include a “New-Orleans-style” deck that will make outdoor seating available across the building’s entire exterior.
DeNafo is particularly excited that the deck’s design will include restoring the classic marquee, but with a modern twist.
“People are actually going to be able to sit inside the marquee, eat, have their lunch or dinner and be able to sit right inside the marquee, in the back of it,” he said.
Along with restoring the marquee, DeNafo said they uncovered ceilings that date back to the 1920s.
“We’re going to bring it back to life and use that in the theaters,” he said. “It’s all stained glass. It’s like this gold and blue color. It’s really, really nice.”
The theater will have an elevator and parking for about 40 cars behind the building.
If everything continues to plan, DeNafo has hopes that the theater will open in May 2019.
Along with the securing the liquor license, DeNafo said, support from city officials has been essential to moving the project along.
“Them getting the second license was critical, and I’m thrilled,” Mayor Beth Holtzman said.
Commissioner Tim Kriebel said he’s excited this license will be put to use in a separate commercial district.
The Board of Commissioners awarded the first liquor license to Blake Barabuscio, an owner of Philadelphia-based Santucci’s Original Square Pizza on May 24.
The license for Ventnor Square Theatre is on the commission meeting agenda for approval Nov. 7.
Barabuscio plans to open a restaurant and bar next spring in the city’s central business district while the theater sits in the city’s North Beach district.
“It’s a huge game changer and the positivity is exactly what drives downtowns and drives real estate value,” he said.
Kriebel said it has been this administration’s goal to re-evaluate liquor licenses.
“That kind of engagement is going to lead to people thinking of the city as in investment, not a summer place,” he said.
The city does not have a date for when it will offer its third and final license, but officials have positive projections.
“Only good things can happen,” Kriebel said. “Good things beget good things.”