Metuchen officials purchase Forum Theater with hopes of restoring venue

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METUCHEN – When the formation of the Metuchen Downtown Alliance was still being discussed in 2016, one of the hopes was to revive the 1927 Forum Theater.

Three years later the alliance is in full swing and on March 11, Mayor Jonathan Busch signed a purchase contract to acquire the theater from Marloe Enterprises Inc. for $1.399 million.

“Right now our focus is on acquisition and our focus is on due diligence,” Busch said, noting negotiations were constructive with the Lowery family, which owned the theater for 37 years.

Borough Council members adopted an ordinance which provides for the acquisition of the theater. They passed a resolution awarding the Falcon Group a contract to provide due diligence services on the building at a cost not to exceed $16,995.

The Falcon Group’s job “is to go (into the theater) and tell us how much they think it will cost” to preserve it, Busch said.

The Falcon Group, which is from Bridgewater, is an engineering and architectural firm with a focus on restoring and evaluating buildings.

Busch said the acquisition of the theater was made possible with a $3.5 million grant from Middlesex County, the largest single grant Metuchen has received from the county.

In October 2018, county and borough officials came together to announce the county was allocating the grant from the Middlesex County Cultural and Arts Trust Fund to help create the Metuchen Arts District.

The Cultural and Arts Trust Fund was established in 2015. The Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders established the trust fund when residents voted to allocate more funding toward arts, cultural and historic venues, programs and education.

The Metuchen Arts District would include the Forum Theater along Main Street and the corner of Amboy Avenue, the site of an abandoned gas station.

“This was only able to happen because of the grant money,” Busch said, adding the grant money will go toward restoring the theater.

The acquisition of the theater is the first major step in the borough’s proposed creation of a Metuchen Arts District, which officials announced in August 2018.

The proposed arts district would include a renovation of the 450-seat Forum Theater and the conversion of the gas station next door into a contemporary indoor-outdoor event space and dining area called “Spot.”

Busch said the proposed arts district would not only restore the Forum Theater and create an art hub, but also create potential sustainable revenue which would lead to greater economic development and benefits for Metuchen and the county through parking fees and advertisements.

The mayor said that since the space would be a public entity, a special concession liquor license could be considered for an interested restaurant group. He said Metuchen officials are not in the business of managing a restaurant or a theater.

“The intention is for the theater to sustain itself … through advertising revenue, a potential for a concession liquor license [for the restaurant and Forum Theater], parking revenue and space rentals,” he said.

Council President Linda Koskoski said the borough has a unique opportunity to preserve a 1920s theater unlike Carteret and Woodbridge, which are building new theaters.

Councilman Jason Delia said he sees the acquisition of the Forum Theater and the creation of a vibrant arts district as an investment for the borough.

Councilman Todd Pagel said the social media response about what is happening in Metuchen has been “phenomenal.”

“These progressive projects we have been taking on increases not only our arts district, but south Main Street businesses, the Metuchen Downtown Alliance businesses, and our property values,” he said.

Pagel said that to address residents’ concerns about the cost of the project, the council and the administration would continue to scrutinize the project’s budget.

Councilwoman Sheri-Rose Rubin said the council and mayor are not an “either or” community and focus on bettering the whole community.

“We bring businesses into town who might buy houses and become residents and taxpayers,” she said.

Margaret Davis, who runs Middlesex County’s Plays-in-the-Park program at Roosevelt Park in Edison, attended the meeting. She said she hopes a symbiotic partnership can be created.

“I think there are many ways we can partner,” Davis said. “We do winter things at the State Theater (New Brunswick) … it doesn’t mean we can’t do something right here in Metuchen.”

Busch said the Forum Theater is a mile away from Plays-in-the-Park, a government sponsored outdoor amphitheater which presents three musicals during the summer, an indoor children’s musical in October and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” each December.

“We see partnerships as well,” he said.