A call for enhanced entertainment options in Newark

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Guest commentator Doug Rainey weighs in with his thoughts on reestablishing entertainment options in downtown Newark. 

Here are Doug’s thoughts:

News of the closing of Mojo Main served as a reminder of a missing piece in the turnaround of downtown Newark: a night spot with the legendary appeal of The Stone Balloon.

Mojo was a music venue and dining spot that operated for most of its more-than two-decade existence as the East End Cafe. Regardless of the name, the business reportedly struggled with the payment of a lawsuit over its use of music and its location away from Main Street.

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Mojo owners made an effort to improve their lunch and dinner business, but the establishment remained something of a dive, in need of a major makeover that would attract more than the hipster or goth crowds.

This does not mean that Newark is a live music desert: Home Grown Cafe, Catherine Rooney’s and Deer Park have done well with live entertainment.

However, something remains missing amid the mass of restaurants that are too-often populated by franchises that come and go after learning the harsh lessons of catering to students.

Hopes raised in early April

Bill Stevenson, who founded Stone Balloon and authored a book on the legendary night spot, has worked to keep memories of the club alive. The club’s former location is now the site of a condominium development after the building was razed in 2006.

On the first day of April, he posted news on his Facebook page of receiving approval from the City of Newark to open a new Stone Balloon.

However, the announcement was an April Fool’s prank from Stevenson, who will forever be remembered in Delaware trivia contests as the first husband of Jill Biden, the Vice President’s wife.

The faux news deceived a few of his Facebook friends and even made its way to the pages of The News Journal.

While ultimately a hoax, the announcement led many to hope against hope about a revived Stone Balloon, which in its heyday attracted a legendary roster of performers that included Bruce Springsteen, Metallica and the Dave Matthews Band.

Nearly everyone agrees that the Stone Balloon, with its sticky floors, free-flowing beer and other dive-like touches could never be duplicated in a more politically-correct era. But it is not hard to see how such a gathering place, which could seat a few hundred poople and host performers who like to play the college circuit between stints in Philly or Atlantic City, could possibly thrive.

We did see The Balloon’s legacy acknowledged for a few years with the Stone Balloon Wine House. However, with condominium residents living above, only acoustic guitars were allowed. 

One prototype for a new Balloon is World Cafe Live at the Queen, a venue that attracts a variety of performers. World Cafe’s struggles match those of downtown Wilmington, but the elegantly-renovated old theater is seeing gains each year.

In the meantime, World Cafe Live management can only dream of the crowds that would pass by any live music spot in Newark.

Exploring possibilities

With the success of the Queen and the growing feeling that Main Street is lacking something, the idea of a Balloon-sized night spot has long been discussed.

While serving on the Newark City Council, Paul Pomeroy explored the idea before taking on increased responsibilities as a managing director at the marketing communcations firm of ab+c in Wilmington. He looked at a number of locations, including Delaware Avenue, an area where development is spilling over from Main Street.

After leaving the council, Pomeroy concluded his research, but remained convinced that a music spot would be a good fit.

Michael Smith, manager of the Greater Newark Development Partnership, said that a live music venue is one of the top three goals of his organization, which operates under the auspices of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce.

Smith said that any potential developer should “think big.”

After all, the remaining entertainment options in Newark area appear to be dwindling, with the future of the bowling alley and cinema at the Newark Shopping Center remaining uncertain. The center is slated to undergo redevelopment with, unsurprisingly, more student housing. No major tenants have been announced.

A site in the center of pedestrian traffic in or near Main Street would be ideal, Smith said, allowing that the relatively isolated East Main location of Mojo Main did not help its prospects.

Smith does not rule out the Newark Shopping Center site, which could move pedestrian traffic past Chapel Street, the unofficial boundary of Main Street’s prime attractions. Thinking big could involve a combined movie theater, bowling alley and entertainment spot.

Smith noted that despite the vibrancy of Main Street, Newark has more than its share of shopping centers in need of renovation. In addition to the Newark Shopping Center, College Square on the east edge of the city has been in a not-so-gradual decline.

Getting a Newark music spot on the map, perhaps with a nod to the Stone Ballon, might even help bring a successor to Mojo back to life.

A cluster of live music spots of various sizes adds a sense of place that franchised fast-food estabishments simply can’t provide.

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