METUCHEN – Borough officials want to make sure when movie theaters are allowed to reopen, a plan is in place for the Metuchen Forum Theater.
The Borough Council approved a resolution at a meeting on Aug. 24 to award a contract to Webb Management Services, New York, as theater consultant services in a total amount not to exceed $49,000.
Webb Management will conduct a needs assessment in the amount not to exceed $26,000 and if necessary a business plan in the amount not to exceed $23,000.
Movie theaters closed in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“We have been working carefully for the last couple of months with a number of people [DEVCO, the borough planners and others who specialize in the arts],” Mayor Jonathan Busch said. “Webb Management has worked all over the country and they have an extraordinary track record.”
The theater consultants have worked with Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown and White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, which is a similar theater to the Forum Theater, Busch said.
“They will provide an evaluation and a feasibility study,” he said. “They will take into account what we need, what people expect, combined with the market and what will be successful there.”
The mayor said the process will take months, but “it is specifically designed to gather extensive public input and consult with experts from throughout the arts industry in an effort to provide guidance on the district’s eventual business operations to ensure that the project is as successful for our community as possible.”
Busch said buying a theater is not something many people get to do.
“Buying a theater is the easy part; the hard part is to make sure it’s sustainable for decades to come,” he said. “It’s a unique market with a lot of opportunity. We want to make sure we bring in the right people, this is part of that step. Eventually we will allow people from the public to be able to provide input.”
In 2019, Busch signed a purchase contract to acquire the theater from Marloe Enterprises Inc. for $1.399 million. The Lowery family had owned the theater for 37 years.
The acquisition of the historic 1927 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 Metuchen Arts District would include the Forum Theater along Main Street and the corner of Amboy Avenue, the site of an abandoned gas station. 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 has 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 Middlesex County through parking fees and advertisements.
The mayor explained that since the space would be a public entity, a special concession liquor license could be considered for an interested restaurant group.