Middlesex County News

County Commits $12M to New Brunswick Cultural Center Tower

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A rendering of the performing arts center slated for downtown New Brunswick.
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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — When the 22-story performing arts center opens in downtown New Brunswick, two of its floors will belong to Middlesex County.

The Board of Chosen Freeholders adopted an ordinance last night, May 18, that reallocates $17.5 million from previously issued bonds to other projects. Among them is the purchase of two floors of office space, at a cost of $12 million, in the coming mixed-use skyscraper.

The move comes after an earlier $6 million commitment made by the county to what has often been called the New Brunswick Cultural Center redevelopment project, which is slated to replace the George Street Playhouse and the Crossroads Theatre on Livingston Avenue.

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What’s more, the freeholders introduced an ordinance last night that, if adopted on June 15, would enable Middlesex to guarantee $34 million in loans for the project. While the county wouldn’t borrow the money, it would take on the debt in the event of a default of the notes, which would be issued through the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, officials said.

“It’s going to be an economic boon for the city, between the arts, restaurants, jobs, construction and, of course, arts education,” Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios said of the redevelopment initiative. “I’m certainly an advocate for this project.”

In addition to the office space, the project is slated to yield two “state-of-the-art” theaters, rehearsal spaces, a lobby and concessions area, an attached parking deck on Bayard Street and 207 apartment units, officials have said. Twenty percent of those residences would be set aside for people with low and moderate incomes, including artists and people involved with theater.

A subsidiary of the New Brunswick Development Corporation, or Devco, has led the effort as the project’s redeveloper.

The multimillion-dollar project is being financed through a web of public and private entities.

Anthony Pannella, the county’s bond counsel, broke down the arrangement last night following a question from a member of the public.

Pennrose, the residential developer, expects to borrow $47 million from Citi Bank. That loan will be administered through the Middlesex County Improvement Authority, which is slated to result in interesting savings, Pannella said.

The state Economic Development Authority intends to provide the project $40 million in tax credits, or $4 million per year over a decade. To gain access to that money immediately, the improvement authority plans to issue bonds, which should also keep down interest, Pannella said.

The New Brunswick Parking Authority has moved to borrow $23 million for the construction of the parking deck, as TAPinto New Brunswick has reported.

Rutgers University has also passed a resolution committing $17 million to the undertaking.

And Middlesex County has also put up money, most recently with its $12 million contribution in exchange for office space, Pannella said.

“I think it’s going to be great for New Brunswick,” Rios said. “I think it’s going to be great for the entire county and beyond.”

But some residents questioned what they considered the steep tab covered by the county. One woman wondered whether the money used to buy office space would be better spent on improving the county’s public-transit system or schools.

The county’s precise plans for the office space are unclear. Business development, communications and arts staffers could move to the new location after construction is completed in two years, county officials have said. But Freeholder Kenneth Armwood said it’s possible that the county workforce development office will move to the tower, making it more accessible to the unemployed.

The number of players involved with the Cultural Center project and their legal representation have stirred questions from at least one resident.

Charlie Kratovil, the editor of the activist community newspaper New Brunswick Today, has expressed concern that Thomas Kelso—the general counsel for Middlesex County who also represents Devco and Pennrose and chairs the New Brunswick Cultural Center—might have a conflict of interest due to those relationships.

Kelso has remained quiet on the issue until last night, when he strongly denied the allegations. He said he has also recused himself from legal work regarding the project on behalf of the county.

“I say shame on you for taking the opportunity to belittle me and put in jeopardy a project that means so much to so many people,” Kelso told Kratovil. “For you to say that I have a conflict is wrong—it’s legally wrong, and it’s factually wrong.”

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