January 27, 2008

UCPAC Sinkhole

Government can provide a nice living for a lot of people if projects touted as essential keep popping up. In Union County in 2004 it was the reconstruction of the Arts Center in Rahway that became a tax-money MacGuffin.
A former vaudeville and silent movie palace built in 1927 devolved into an X-rated movie house in the 1980s until the appearance of VCRs left it an arts center, which basically means a home to puppet shows that can come up with the rental fees. What most people would have viewed as the next home for a Walgreens the Union County freeholders saw as the first step in making Rahway an entertainment hub. Build a state-of-the-art theater, get Joe Piscopo to open a comedy club, throw around some county money and voila: Branson – East.
But like a prisoner left in solitary for years, the all-Democratic freeholder board seemed to have taken no counsel other than from the voices in their heads. They might have looked at similar venues and dreamed their dreams. The Count Basie theater in Red Bank does well but that’s in the middle of an arts town surrounded by upscale suburbs. Around here you would draw more people from Winfield Park with a tractor pull than the Bolshoi. The John Harms Center in Englewood books about one big event per month and I don’t remember anything at the Ritz Theater in Elizabeth since Raymond Lesniak brought in Ich Troje.
What possessed the decision-makers in Union County to believe that reviving a burlesque theater in the middle of Rahway would be worth the millions of dollars of tax money they were prepared to sink into it? The Worrall papers perceptively editorialized on April 1, 2004: “the taxpayers have enough of a financial burden on their collective plates without having to add this one to it. We know it’s a done deal, we know the transaction will occur, and it will occur despite what anybody says in opposition to it because that’s how the almighty freeholders conduct business – with total disregard to the populace who elected them.”
To this Freeholder Daniel Sullivan responded three weeks later by accusing the paper of “misrepresenting the facts about county government in a very partisan manner to a dwindling subscription base.” After the requisite three insults that all freeholders are obligated to hurl when addressing the public, he moved on to bandy phrases like ‘spur economic development’, ‘investment in the arts’, and ‘new jobs and increased ratables.’ All worthy goals but why a theater, why in Rahway, and why county tax money? You could hire a thousand workers to dig holes or give $300 checks to everybody making under $75,000 and claim many of the same benefits.
The theater just happened to be available. Had a hospital, racetrack, or liquor store been on the block and the freeholders needed to divert money back to their supporters through no-bid contracts we would have had similar paeans to their rehabilitations. Rahway is a Democratic town with a nice tax cow in Merck that allows their local government to play spending games with the county without much voter backlash. If the county did not undertake these development projects there would be little justification for the existence of this layer of government.
So where is the UCPAC today? It will host a stepping competition on February 9, admission $7 and there are 532 of a capacity 876 seats left. Joy Behar will be there on May 3 and an Alan Ayckbourn romantic comedy will have eight performances in February. When you go on ucpac.org and check ticket availability both acts seem to have an unusual number of available front-row center seats with the rest of the house unclickable, possibly to give the impression that you and your date won’t be the only ones in the audience to see Joy Behar and whomever on the freeholder board is up for election this year to introduce her.
So what does this whole episode teach us? That government officials may be able to run strip clubs but not an arts center? That you can’t locate an entertainment complex in Rahway without involving a happy hour?
No. The lesson here is that if you stay silent while self-dealing politicians squander your money on vanity projects then you deserve the tragicomedy that will be played out, not on any UCPAC stage but in the County Administration building.