The Friends of Loew’s: Request For Proposal

From Friends of the Loew’s, May 1, 2014 (201) 798-6055

In response to Mayor Fulop’s message today about the Loew’s and his RFP process, FOL would like to point out few things.

To begin with, the Mayor is factually incorrect when he says that Friends of the Loew’s “was granted the task of restoring the Theatre” in 1993. That’s the year the City bought the closed and abandoned Loew’s, and originally planned to mothball it.

In 1994 the City gave the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation – NOT FOL – the job of carrying out $2 million worth of stabilization work – i.e, repairs that would keep the Loew’s from falling apart. $1 million came from a state preservation grant FOL had helped JCEDC win; the other $1 million came from the City. But there was no money for the much greater work needed before the Loew’s could open and operate again. And at the time the City refused to consider providing additional monies. Instead, the City talked about forming steering committees and blue ribbon panels to fundraise, but never did.

That’s where FOL stepped up and used our own funds to create a program of volunteer labor that ultimately made it possible to begin very limited programs at the Loew’s in 2001. But the City had not given FOL any real authority or responsibility. What we did, we did out of dedication to the goal of restoring the Loew’s.

After considering and rejecting the idea of turning the Loew’s over to the Redevelopment Agency, the City Administration and City Council realized that the right course was to formalize and empower the dedication and leadership of the community group that had defined the idea of saving the Loew’s and was already doing so much with so little.

Following the fair and transparent process prescribed under state law, the City entered into a lease of the Loew’s with FOL in 2004 for the public purpose of running it as a non-profit arts center. But that lease was also a plan for moving forward in which the City pledged to find funding to make the absolutely critical code-related repairs that have to happen before FOL or any entity can work with promoters to bring in major acts or even host many more community programs. The City also pledged to find funding to enable FOL to use the input of nationally recognized arts management experts in planning and implementing expanded operations of the Loew’s.

But for ten years, the City has not done its part under the plan – leaving FOL holding the bag with a theatre that can’t operate like any other arts center. If FOL had simply walked away, it might be fair to criticize us. But instead, we created a management structure uniquely suited to the Loew’s serious limitations, and within the last year alone we’ve hosted over 80 events, a broad mix ranging from a major pop concert, to student art shows, to a Volunteer Expo serving non-profits from throughout Hudson County.

Actually, this proves the wisdom the City showed ten years ago by making FOL the official guardians of the Loew’s: Even while the City has failed to keep its commitments to its own building, FOL has found a way to keep the Loews open and serving the community to the greatest extent possible under the circumstances.

On the other hand, faulting FOL for the limits on programming caused by the City’s failure to keep commitments to its own building is, to say the least, ironic.

Contrast what’s happened with the Loew’s with what has recently happened with the Boyd Theatre in Philadelphia. A community group led a campaign to save the Boyd, but was not put in charge of it. Instead, Live Nation was given control. Unfortunately, the Boyd is now being torn down.

No matter what, the very important code-related repairs must STILL be made before anything else can happen. The City still hasn’t found funding for this – BUT FOL won over $500,000 in Hudson County Open Space Trust Fund grants for some of this work. But Mayor Fulop is refusing to allow this work to start. In doing this the Mayor has shown the kind of inexplicable hurdles that the City has caused FOL over the years.

Going forward, some or all of the groups that responded to the Mayor’s RFP may be able to play a role in expanding programming at the Loew’s , but that needs to be determined through the well-considered process the City set up with FOL years ago.

That’s the way to manage the involvement of major, for-profit entities like AEG and Live Nation in the Loew’s while ensuring that the non-profit mission of serving our community and region does not get lost.

FOL has always said we will work with for profit promoters, producers, booking agents, etc. That’s how the business works for popular concerts and many other shows. But a situation where a for profit is in the lead managing the Loew’s is not advisable.

For profit and non-profit theatre managements have starkly different imperatives. Ultimately, for profits have the imperative to ensue income for their owners and investors, and this has an unavoidable impact on programming decisions. The imperative to make money obviously becomes even greater if the for profit has taken on debt in one form or another to fund major renovations.

Non-profits obviously have expenses too, but there is no need to pay owners and investors. They can use income from for profit type shows to help support the whole operation. A non-profit’s ultimate imperative is its mission to present a broad range of quality programming. And non-profits have the ability to pursue donations and grants for renovations, and even operations.

If a non-profit must cede the possibility of earning income from some for profit type programming, it has lost a major means of helping to support its over-all operations. Also, it is very hard to conceive of an arrangement in which two entities have equal management authority. If the for profit has the upper hand, it will inexorably push to maximize its profits by constricting the non-for profit operations, and the theatre will more and more be a commercial venue and less and less a arts center.

The classic structure of arts centers, as seen in the Count Basie Theatre, NJPAC, the Atlanta Fox, Playhouse Square, Proctor’s in Schenectady, and many more around the country, is for operations to be directly carried out by staff working for the non-profit management entity, augmented perhaps by some vendors – including for-profit promoters – directly contracted by the non-profit management. And this is the best option for the Loew’s.

What’s at stake is whether Jersey City can use it’s own failure to support the plan it created for the Loew’s as justification to abandon the goal of a non-profit arts center.