WESTFIELD, NJ — Both the municipality and the owner of a 97-year-old movie theater, which closed abruptly six months ago, are working to convert the landmark location into a performing arts center.
The town had sought a grant to hire a consultant to study what the best use for the theater space could be. However, Mayor Shelley Brindle this week said that grant opportunity fell through. Even without the study, it has become clear to municipal officials and the theater’s owner that movies are not anticipated to return to The Rialto.
“It’s highly unlikely in this marketplace that The Rialto is going to reopen as a movie theater,” Brindle said.
Despite the grant falling through, she said, the municipality has gone out to bid for the consultant and intends to award that bid with the hope that the town can secure private funding for the consultant’s study.
The town, she said, does not anticipate that it will take on the financial responsibility of running the theater.
“We can all get very emotional about the Rialto but, at some point, we have to be very practical about it, too,” Brindle said.
The municipality, she said, wouldn’t want to be financially burdened by having to operate a performing arts center.
“I’ve gotten lots of good insight into what’s required, but a performing arts center, it doesn’t necessarily sustain itself,” Brindle said. “It requires equipment, donors and so forth.”
Jesse Sayegh, who owns the property, said that he has been approached by five to six separate investors seeking to turn the property into a “non-theatrical” use. Still, he hopes to keep the property a theater — even if it is for live performing arts instead of film. Sayegh said he offered to sell the property to the town and is holding out hope that local investors will emerge.
“Being I’m so attached to the theater industry and to preserving old theaters, I gave the town the first shot because in my heart and in my mind, I would like to see the theater preserved in one form or the other,” Sayegh said.
Given the competition that nearby theaters in Mountainside and Watchung present, along with changes in the film industry, he does not see The Rialto turning a profit on movies.
“You’re not going to even break even,” Sayegh said. Performing arts, he said, would offer the best opportunity for The Rialto.
Partitions that separate the theater’s six screens could be taken down and the space turned into an approximately 900-seat space for live theater, he said.
“I would find the right people and the right company, who could manage it and do the bookings,” Sayegh said.
The future of the theater has become of topic of public interest in Westfield.
Since the theater’s prior operators, New Vision Cinemas, vacated their lease, leaving the space in Downtown Westfield empty, the town has sought to revitalize the space and formed a committee to advise on what to do with the prominent property.
“We have formed a visionary and experienced advisory group that represents expertise in commercial real estate and financing, theater management, grant writing, economic development and the film industry, to name a few,” Brindle said in January. “With their collective input, we are in active discussions with the owner of the Rialto … about how it can be re-imagined for the future of Westfield.”
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