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Shuttered Surflight Theatre Could Be Saved By Long Beach Island Taxpayers
Residents and officials of Long Beach Island together could help save Surflight Theatre. Mayors Nancy Taggart Davis of Beach Haven and Joseph Mancini of Long Beach Township have been discussing a plan proposed by a local group of people interested in leasing Surflight and running it as a community theater. The group is comprised of some of the same people who previously ran it, though names have not been disclosed.
The proposed continuation of the theater would also depend upon its purchase by the Island’s municipalities.
Surflight had a long history of financial problems before $4 million of debt forced management to close its doors last February and file for bankruptcy, after 65 years of entertainment. It was ultimately bought by TD Bank with a $100 bid at a December auction.
The bank is willing to sell Surflight for $2.1 million said Taggart Davis, who discussed the idea with other council members at a public meeting Wednesday, Feb. 17. But the mayor expects there is some room for price negotiation since TD, which is a for-profit company, is currently paying property taxes on the 0.61-acre property, which includes the theater proper, a cast house, residential home, the Show Place Ice Cream Parlour, a scenery shop, offices and other living quarters.
The proposed plan would make Surflight an “Island theater,” which would require Beach Haven to pay for half and the Island’s other municipalities to pay the other 50 percent.
“In a way, this is kind of better for Beach Haven because Beach Haven would really have control over Surflight,” Taggart Davis stated.
She said Mancini initially suggested Beach Haven and Long Beach Township each pay 30 percent and the rest of the Island towns pay the remaining 40 percent.
Mancini declined to discuss the proposal on the record until there is a more definitive plan.
Beach Haven Councilman Don Kakstis, who attended Wednesday’s meeting from Florida via video chat, said he believes it is a “relatively low risk” plan since, according to the proposal, the principal and the interest would be covered by the lease agreements. He commended the mayor for pursuing the idea and said it could be a “huge benefit” to the town, even if the lots had to be sold off.
“Whenever you go to any municipality conferences, the idea of giving up a theater is like a mortal sin in church, and we ought to do everything we can to try to keep it going,” Kakstis stated.
But other council members are not sold on the idea. Robert Keeler agreed it “would be nice” to go forward with the deal but said Surflight is “extremely difficult” to run.
“The one thing we never had a shortage of at Surflight is creative talent. They put on great shows, but they just didn’t have a really good handle on how to run a business,” he stated.
Keeler believes it would be better handled as a private enterprise.
“If it was an opportunity to really make money, if it really was a slam dunk, I would love to see somebody in the financial sector come in and do it, and they could be secured by the land,” he said. “But to just come to us and say, ‘Hey, you guys get the building and we’ll run the shows and if it doesn’t work you can sell it,’ I don’t know if the council has the responsibility to do that.
“Look at our businesses in town. Unless you’re selling food or liquor, even if you paid no rent, it’s hard to make any money because the seasons are so short,” he added.
Councilman Jim White said he is concerned about putting taxpayers’ money into something that has failed financially numerous times. But if there is a good plan, he said, he would support it.
Taggart Davis noted the group is interested in running a community theater, not an equity theater, which would “cut the costs drastically.”
“I do know, because I go to theater a lot and I do send some money to theaters, that theaters in general are not money-making,” she stated. “It’s something that the community supports, and hopefully they make enough money with donations and grants to enable them to meet the bills and keep the place running. That’s critical.”
Jeff Wells, a local resident and architect who granted money to theaters, including Surflight, while serving a few years on the state Council on the Arts, said all theaters need subsidy. Committed contributions from financial partners for the lifetime of Surflight’s operation would be vital, he noted.
“If you want to get together with Joe (Mancini) and the other towns and save the Surflight, which really has to happen, don’t think about a capital expenditure. Think about an operating expenditure,” Wells suggested. “There’s not a single theater that stands on its own, especially one that has a 10-week season. You’re in a whole different animal, and this is something I don’t think you guys are going to be able to take on.”
Wells said he would hate to see Surflight turn into “another developer’s housing project, because it’s one of the things people come down here for.”
One of the reasons Taggart Davis believes commercial developers have not purchased Surflight is because three of the buildings have restrictions, and the property is in the town’s historical district.
“You would have to wait at least a year to rip down three of the buildings,” she said. “You’d have to meet all the approvals of the historical area, and to knock down all those buildings, particularly the theater, would be costly because there’s a lot of cement there. I heard figures like $1.3 million would be about the most a developer would pay to develop it into homes.”
The mayor noted she has talked to many bankers, who suggested the town sell bonds and any revenue generated from leasing and running Surflight would pay the bondholders. But Richard Crane, borough manager, said it is too small of a deal for bonding.
“This isn’t just my decision here,” said Taggart Davis. “This is up to the whole council, and we don’t know if we can even afford to pay 50 percent. A lot depends on what TD’s willing to sell the place for, which is hopefully less.”
The mayor said other groups of people have also presented plans to help save Surflight.
Article courtesy of— Kelley Anne Essinger
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