Dispute clouds future of Jersey City movie palace

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News,Entertainment,Business,Movies,New Jersey

JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — A majestic movie palace that dates back to the Great Depression is being viewed as a possible key to Jersey City's economic future.

For now, the Loew's Jersey Theatre is in the middle of a tug of war between the nonprofit that runs it and city officials who want to bring in a major concert promoter with the hope of revitalizing an underdeveloped area in New Jersey's second-largest city.

The Loew's, one of five palatial "wonder theaters" built in the New York area in the baroque style of European opera houses, has sat in the middle of Journal Square since 1929, when it opened weeks before the stock market crash. Divided up into a multiplex and eventually boarded up in the 1980s, it's been operated since the 1990s by Friends of the Loew's, which presents movies and performances by local groups.

Friends of the Loew's has gone to court and claimed the city has reneged on an agreement requiring it to solicit funding over the years for much-needed renovations. This month, a judge allowed the city's bidding process to go forward, and last week, city planners heard presentations from four groups including AEG Live and Live Nation, two of the world's largest music and entertainment promoters.

The city envisions the theater as the crown jewel of a Journal Square renaissance. Mayor Steven Fulop noted recently that the area, with its major thoroughfares and PATH rail station, was considered the city's heart before an unprecedented building boom over the last 15 years moved the focus east toward downtown and the waterfront.

"Everybody sees this as being the cultural hub of the city," he said. "The goal is to get this back to being that."

Recently, Fulop adjusted the city's tax abatement policies to give companies more incentive to build, buy or relocate to Journal Square. Since then, five new office towers have been approved to be built over the next several years, and two office buildings have been purchased and will be converted into apartments, according to city officials. All are planned to have street-level stores and restaurants.

Friends of the Loew's' involvement in the theater is said to date back to the day in 1987 when Colin Egan, now the group's executive director, was stopped at a traffic light and noticed the theater he had visited as a youth was boarded up. After years of fighting to save the building from being torn down, Egan and others managed to fix it up enough to hold small events in the lobby and then in the theater proper.

Today, the city estimates the approximately 3,000-seat theater will need about $21 million in renovations to be able to host major acts. For example, the balcony needs repairs to address fire code issues.

The city claims Egan's nonprofit is running the theater at a loss and has done little fundraising; Egan claims the city had the chance to get funding for the renovations but failed to do so, in violation of a 2004 agreement.

Egan also is skeptical that a large concert promoter would be able to put on enough events to defray the cost of the renovations.

"The mayor seems to think if you bring in a major promotion company, it will bring in a heavy schedule of concerts, but those entities often are interested more in controlling the theater and keeping the competition out," he said. "Also, it's not clear if funding for the renovations is going to be provided by these companies."

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