New director inspires new enthusiasm for Newark Symphony Hall’s future

You could drive right past Newark Symphony Hall on the south end of Broad Street and be completely oblivious to what lies behind the facade of the old Mosque Theater as it was known when it opened in 1925. But, over the years, the theater has hosted performances from artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Hendrix, Victor Borge, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Judy garland, Lil Wayne and many, many more, including serving as a home for the New Jersey Symphony and Opera, long before NJ PAC was a glimmer in the eyes of city leaders.

Today, the theater’s main hall, named after Newarker Sarah Vaughn, lies mostly silent, save for the occasional private promoter or community event. But the neighborhood around the theater is on the rise, bringing commerce, sure, but, more critically, people, creating a neighborhood.

Taneshia Nash Laird has been brought on to lead the revitalization of Newark’s grand dame. Nash Laird met with NJTV Senior Correspondent David Cruz in the theater’s main hall, where, full disclosure, he once worked a couple of decades ago.

Cruz: It’s a little different now. It feels like it’s gotten a little older, you know. It’s like a friend that’s aged, but the feel is still there of it. You must love being in this physical environment, right?

Laird: I do. I love being in this environment. It is pretty amazing. And she has aged a little bit, the queen here, we’re going to give her a little face-lift, though.

Cruz: So, your background is almost like a perfect mix of all the things necessary to revive an old girl like this.

Laird: Yes, my background is a combination of arts and entertainment and economic development and community development. And I agree, thank you, I agree that I have a good background for what Symphony Hall needs.

Like serving as executive director of the Arts Council of Princeton, director of economic development for the city of Trenton, regional director of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Trenton Downtown Association.

Laird: We need some TLC, but we also need to address the programming. So we do programming right now, but what we want to do is have a full on signature series of annual programming, just like what you used to remember.

Cruz: I imagine that there’s some economic development plans for this Lincoln Park neighborhood, which back in the day was a hub of jazz activity in this city.

Laird: Yes. Implementing those plans, implementing the economic development financing aspect, and I think that is the area that probably made me set apart. I understand how to fund it.

Cruz: How do you start to fund it now?

Laird: The great thing is that since we’ve been on the national registry of historic places since the 70s, we’re eligible for what’s called historic tax credits. Gov. Murphy, as part of his budget proposal, is advocating for a state-based historic tax credit, which is really exciting. We are in a census track that’s eligible for what’s called New Market Tax Credits. And then of course the new legislation, which is called Opportunity Zones, and we’re within that as well. So all of that is layered to create what we call a capital stack, and so right now I’m seeking to build a capital stack that adds up to about $40 million.

Cruz: You sound like an economic development czar right there. Capital stacks. Stack of money.

Laird: Stack of money.

Of course, there’s that other performing arts center, just on the other end of Broad Street, 20 years old and at the center of revitalization efforts there. Long time Newarkers remember feeling left behind then, but Laird says that was a long time ago.

Laird: People say well what’s changed? Nothing’s changed. Actually a lot of things have changed since then. New market tax credits didn’t exist. We didn’t have a governor talking about adding a historic tax credit. There certainly wasn’t an opportunity zone, so what’s changed are the funding mechanisms which now are focused on revitalization and economic development. There’s more of an interest in that from a funding perspective.

And that, as much as any rose-colored memories of what Newark Symphony Hall used to be, is what will be needed to return this queen of the south end of Broad Street to her rightful positions as anchor, cornerstone and soul of a city.