Behind these doors, burlesque was king…or queen…and vaudeville brought down the house. Carteret’s historic Ritz Theatre sits vacant now. It’s seen many roles–as a sewing factory, a bakery–and now Mayor Daniel Reiman wants it to become an anchor for his downtown arts district. The city is one of the latest in New Jersey to look to the arts for an economic driver.
“Studies have suggested that arts districts tend to help the local economy, spur revitalization, economic development,” says Carteret mayor Daniel Reiman. “We’ve seen that in Red Bank, we’ve seen that in other towns—Rahway right next door.”
The plan includes new housing, restaurants, and parking along the same block as the theater. This is no small investment. The acquisition and clean up cost $700,000—an expense shared by the city and the county. The restoration and updating will cost another $6-10 million.
“We’re pledging the revenue off of our properties that we’re selling for redevelopment around the area, so I can tell you that we have readily available $6 million towards the project,” Reiman says.
Leonardo Vazquez’s firm specializes in transforming towns into art destinations. “The arts are one of the most cost-effective ways to improve communities because it’s not just about bringing people in, the economic development, but the arts can have a great impact on social development, community development,” he says. “You can pretty much buy anything on the internet except an experience.”
Reiman says the experiences offered here will fill a void for the community. The facility will be modeled after the South Orange Performing Arts Center. SOPAC is part non-profit performance space and part for-profit movie theater—something Carteret has lacked since the early ‘80s.
“Because of the distance from other national and regional names, we would be able to have first run movies as well as the indie films,” Reiman says.
When Jim Kennedy was mayor of Rahway, he oversaw a cultural plan for his town. Now he’s a resource for Reiman. Might the state become over-saturated with arts districts? Maybe. But he thinks Carteret can go all the way.
“There’s a great sense of community here, the community improvements here are all well-planned,” Kennedy says. “Once people locally understand it and it gets beyond that marketing side…it’ll be a no-brainer that it’ll work very well.”
One thing the project has going for it is the theater itself. By happy accident, previous owners covered the ornate plaster walls and ceiling, preserving them for the ages. So, restoring their old glory should be easier. Reiman looks to open the arts center in 2017.