The Mayo Performing Arts Center, the success story behind downtown Morristown’s success, has a thorny problem:
Without more of it, says MPAC CEO Allison Larena, the entertainment showplace and the town risk losing thousands of visitors to competing venues.
“My biggest concern is they will take their entertainment dollars elsewhere. Competition amongst performing arts venues is fierce, and there are plenty of other PACs in the region that would happily accommodate our audience members,” Larena said in a recent letter to the town council.
Town officials, who can recite MPAC’s economic impact from memory — more than 200 shows annually bring 200,000 patrons who pump an estimated $14 million into the area’s economy–read her loud and clear.
They are eyeing municipal Parking Lot 10, about a block from the theater, behind the Post Office, as the site for a new parking deck.
“Right now we’re looking at that option, and what are the possibilities,” town Administrator Michael Rogers said this week. “We’re all in agreement that more parking is needed in this area.”
“We would like to see parking built down there, too,” George Fiore, executive director of the Morristown Parking Authority, told Morristown Green last fall.
Lot 10 is owned by the parking authority, a quasi-independent agency that manages four parking garages and 3,662 parking spaces, including metered street parking.
The town’s zoning master plan has indicated Lot 10 as a potential site for structured parking, according to town Planner Phil Abramson, who said a deck atop the existing 205 parking spaces there almost certainly would be part of some larger development. And that would require some creativity.
“It’s a difficult site,” Abramson said. “It’s in the middle of the block. It doesn’t really have a lot of street frontage.”
Businesses that surround the parking lot include the InLine Morristown roller rink, offices at 10 Wilmot St., George & Martha’s American Grille and Grasshopper Off the Green.
Margret Brady, chairperson of the Morristown Parking Authority, emphasized that any new parking project would be undertaken with all businesses — and taxpayers — in mind.
“We protect the taxpayer first. We don’t want taxpayers to subsidize parking for a nonprofit,” said Brady, referring to the performing arts center.
“Not a dime of taxpayer money has gone into any of our projects, and we’re proud of that. It’s one of the reasons we’re so cautious about what we develop and how we do it,” added the former councilwoman, who has served on the MPA board for 25 years.
Development projects helped underwrite MPA parking decks on DeHart Street (the Epstein’s department store redevelopment) and Cattano Avenue (the Chancery Square apartments), she said.
While erecting parking decks at a cost of $25,000 or more per space is one possible solution, Council President Rebecca Feldman has advised the theater that such a project could take years. In the meantime, she is urging Larena to pursue talks with the new Modera 44 apartment complex, NJ Transit and The Godfather restaurant about sharing shuttle services on show nights.
NJ Transit’s 740-space parking garage stands just across Morris Street from Parking Lot 10, near the restaurant and train station. And Modera 44 has announced plans for morning and evening shuttles to the train station for its tenants. The apartment complex is near the 675-space Dalton parking garage on Cattano Avenue.
“Success does bring challenges,” Feldman said in response to a theater patron’s complaint.
SHUTTLES AND SEINFELD
For some performances, the theater has operated a shuttle to the 700-space deck on DeHart Street, less than two blocks away. But shuttles are expensive, and there is no comfortable waiting area for patrons at the garage, Larena told the council.
Parking there is tight during holidays, she added, and residents of the 40 Park luxury condos (site of the former Epstein’s store) have complained that MPAC is “taking their parking away from them.”
On at least one evening last year, when comedian Jerry Seinfeld played two sold-out shows at the 1,300-seat theater, patrons and 40 Park residents complained they could find no spaces at the DeHart facility.
“Inadequate parking is our number one complaint from patrons,” Larena said. It posed an “enormous challenge” all winter that left many audience members “very frustrated and upset.”
Garages at Ann/Bank streets, Cattano Avenue, Headquarters Plaza, and across from the train station either are too hard to find (she contends better signs are needed) or too far for walking or shuttle service, according to Larena, who has led the performing arts center as president and CEO for 13 of its 20 seasons.
“As you know, the average age range of our audience is 40 to 50-plus,” Larena said in her letter to the council.
“They have the means and desire to consistently enjoy live performances and patronize our local restaurants and businesses. I feel strongly that if our patrons need to now walk or get shuttled from DeHart, Ann and Bank streets or Cattano (which in my opinion is not an option) to the theatre, it will discourage them from returning to Morristown, and they will select another entertainment venue in the region that has easier access to parking.”
Characterizing town officials as “extremely helpful and accommodating,” Larena expressed hope that she could tell patrons to anticipate more parking in Lot 10 within the next two- or three years.
“Our patrons have become accustomed to the theatre consistently improving our customer service and operations, and they would welcome the news, and hopefully ‘stick it out’ until we improve parking in town,” she wrote last month.
The Mayo Center started as a grand movie palace called the Community Theatre in 1937. But it fell into serious disrepair, until a 1994 concert by the famed Kirov Orchestra galvanized volunteers and donors to restore the place.
Ringo Starr, Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole are among the legendary names who have played there in recent years. As the center has expanded, and acts have grown bigger, the town has faced other challenges — such as finding parking for the equipment trucks that were crowding Pine Street on show nights.
Local officials have viewed these episodes as growing pains for a town on the rise.
At a 20th anniversary celebration in January, Mayor Tim Dougherty described MPAC as “one of the keys– if not the main key–to the revitalization of our downtown. And it continues to play a key role.”