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The art of growth: NJPAC is at the center of Newark's redevelopment

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Marc Berson is no longer afraid when it gets dark in Newark.

But he remembers that unease, that anxiety, very well. Back in 1967, when race riots rocked the city, security personnel had to escort him and his coworkers from the Raymond Commerce Building to their cars when they left work every night.

In the years since the city descended into chaos, much has happened, said Berson, chairman of Fidelco Realty Group, a real estate development firm with substantial projects in Newark. The city is rallying. Businesses are coming in. People are coming back.

And Berson attributes that long-awaited and still-ongoing rebirth to one thing: the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

"No one would have come to town without what the arts center and what the government did through the state with Gov. (Tom) Kean," said Berson, an NJPAC board member. "If you want to redevelop a city, you can't just build a building and they will come. You need multiple planes in the air."

And Newark has a lot these days. There's the Prudential Center and the New Jersey Devils. Prudential Financial is building a massive tower on Broad Street. Military Park is getting a Bryant Park-style makeover. New residential units are popping up. A Whole Foods is even coming to town.

But Berson said none of that would exist if it weren't for NJPAC.

"I don't think I'm glamorizing this, by the way. I honestly believe that," Berson said. "I like the phrase 'economic engine.' I like the idea of thinking of it as a catalyst to further the development."

Arts and cultural institutions can be a powerful way to spur economic development. Back in 2012, the National Governors Association drafted an entire report about the value such institutions can provide. They create reasons to stay in a city after quitting time, bringing patrons that fill restaurants and shops. They buy things.

With consumers come businesses — the small ones that want to feel the direct economic impact, but also the big ones that are looking to settle in a vibrant place where employees will want to work.

And the numbers add up: Ann Marie Miller, the executive director at ArtPride NJ, an arts advocacy group, said the arts and culture nonprofits in the state generate more than $1.5 billion a year in economic activity. More than $40 million of that comes back to the state in the form of income and sales taxes.

"It's an economic driver," Miller said. "It's helping our towns quite a good bit."

When the idea for NJPAC was conceived, in 1986, it was intended to serve as a catalyst for the city's revitalization.

John Schreiber, the CEO of NJPAC, said that is happening.

"I would say to you — without being prideful or anything because I had nothing to do with it, I just got here — the fact that the arts center has succeeded through all these seasons has put a stake in the ground and proved to all these places that this is a viable place to live and work," he said.

Berson, for one, needed that proof.

"I came to the table a little skeptical, interested in what's this big idea the governor's advancing?" Berson said.

Now he is among those investing in downtown Newark. His firm, Fidelco, developed two buildings less than half a mile from NJPAC, at 494 Broad St. and One Washington Park — projects he said he never would have taken on without the proximity and potential of NJPAC.

More development is coming, he said.

"If there's a disappointment with the arts center … it's that it didn't happen faster," Berson said. "But today, in 2014, the signs of life, the signs of growth are incredible."

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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