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Event Recap: Williams Center Redevelopment

By Jennifer Ersalesi

Photo credits: Jennifer Ersalesi

In an effort to increase the involvement of the community in determining the best plans for the Williams Center for the Arts, the Redevelopment Committee of the Williams Center held a community meeting on January 22, 2020. The Redevelopment Committee includes residents, business owners and Board members of the Williams Center. The following Redevelopment Committee members sat upon the stage at the meeting: Michael Pelcynski, Evelyn Spath-Mercado (President of the WCA Board), Dr. Wayne Narucki (Vice-President of the WCA Board and business owner), Andy Quatrone, JJ Gonzalez (business owner and Board member), and Colin Millington (Board member). Within the audience, Board Secretary, David Zicchinella and Board of Trustees members: Shayne Millington and Billy Neumann were also present.

Councilman Thomas Mullahey, Council Liaison, began the meeting by explaining how the Council has declared the Williams Center for the Arts as an area of redevelopment. He explained how the town will be working with Neglia Engineering to determine the best redevelopment plan. Councilman Mullahey explained, “We are very lucky that the Borough has allowed us to be part of the plan for the Williams Center. Keep in mind that this is a county-owned building and they no longer want to own it. The Borough doesn’t want to own it either, because it would be unfair to taxpayers. This is why a plan is so important.”

The Rivoli Theater opened in April 1922, so in 2022 the Theater will celebrate it’s 100 year anniversary. In it’s prime, the theater held 2,200 occupants and entertainers such as Abbott and Costello and the Glenn Miller Orchestra performed on the stage below the chandelier that is still hanging in the Rivoli. In 1977, a terrible fire destroyed much of the Rivoli, but after a number of philanthropists started the Williams Center Project the theater was renovated by 1982. The name was changed to the William Carlos Williams Center for the Performing Arts after the famous Williams, poet, doctor, and Rutherford native. According to the WCA website, “In 1987, the building was deeded to Bergen County and a lease agreement was reached with the nonprofit group to continue operating the center. The center continued to serve the community as a host to live theater, music shows, movies, and art shows, and functioned as a hub for the community, as many Rutherfordians will remember graduating from Rutherford High School on its stage.” In 2012, the Newman Theater was closed after superstorm Sandy due to safety concerns regarding the stability of the plaster ceiling. In 2016, the movie theaters were upgraded with three digital projectors in all three cinemas. In addition, the WCA has successfully organized fundraising events, such as Open Mic Comedy nights, live music, poetry readings by the Red Wheelbarrow poets, etc.

Mr. Brian Intindola from Neglia Engineering also spoke at the meeting. He told the audience that he and his team have been using input from the Fall Redevelopment meeting and surveys that have been collected to begin coming up with possible ideas. Intindola explained, “We want to tailor the redevelopment to what we hear from the community at these public meetings and then use everyone’s input to help us create a final draft that can be proposed to the Mayor and Council.”

Daphne Williams, William Carlos William’s granddaughter, attended the meeting, as well as many other community members with an interest in the future of the Williams Center. Christine Beidel-Weiss voiced her opinion, “The Williams Center could have a gallery setting and it could be used for school purposes, a Rutherford Community Theater, and RHS productions. It could also be used to generate revenue if rehearsal spaces can be created. Recitals could be held here as well for local dance schools.”

Many of those in attendance vocalized their desire to see both the Rivoli and Newman Theaters restored and revitalized. There were also many who spoke about the addition of a boutique hotel above the theatres.

Annika Cioffi expressed her opinions, “We need corporate sponsors we can approach for money. We have to find what makes the Williams Center unique and tell corporate sponsors all about what our theater can offer. Theater companies will want to rent our theaters for rehearsal space.”

Billy Neumann explained, “The WCA was the first performing arts center in New Jersey. We have two stages that cannot be used. If we make the Black Box and Newman Theaters viable, it will draw more people to our theaters and our town.”

The audience members both listened to and participated in the redevelopment discussion. Katie Pippin, President of the Rutherford Arts Council explained how Phil Murphy signed the bill S1648 allowing theaters to have liquor licenses when they have seating for 50-999 people. Pippin told the audience, “The main theater needs to be on the ground floor with rateables above the theater. There are so many grants that are available. I think we need to preserve the Newman theater and I urge the council to commit to this preservation. I also believe we need an experienced art professional to help guide this redevelopment process.”

Resident Kevin Porro suggested raising money for a specific purpose, to buy the WCA from the County. Councilman Mullahey explained that it would not be possible for a non-profit organization to buy the WCA from the County. The building would have to go to auction, during which anyone could purchase it.

Williams Center Board President Evelyn Spath-Mercado told the audience members that this has been the best year with the County. She explained, “I want everyone to understand that the County made it clear they will not pull the rug out from under us. We will get plenty of warning.”

Eddy Rolon broadcasted the meeting on Facebook Live so that even more people in the community could be part of the discussion.

In the next few months, the Williams Center for the Arts will host more music events and comedy nights. The Board of the WCA expressed their interest in keeping the community involved and holding more open discussions regarding the plans for the future of the WCA.

For more information about the Williams Center for the Arts, visit their website.

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