This article appeared in the CoStar Daily Brief dated 8/30.2019. It’s just one more indication that Newark has turned a corner. As a lifelong resident of Essex County, I contend that what is happening in Newark has an air of inevitability about it; and I’m not alone. But, inevitable or not, it’s wonderful to see what’s happening up close.
For most of the global audience watching Monday night’s MTV Video Music Awards, the music and celebrities are center stage. For officials in Newark, New Jersey, the focus is on potential new development and economic growth.
Newark, the state’s largest city and site of a redevelopment transformation, is hoping the spotlight from hosting the MTV Video Music Awards show before a live audience in 180 countries from its relatively new Prudential Center venue will lead to more investment. For a city struggling with headlines this week about elevated lead in its drinking water, it can focus instead on the $4 billion development pipeline that officials say is turning the city around.
Prudential Center officials are looking to the VMAs as a showcase for their venue, seeking to attract more television productions and other events. The arena’s arrival has been a catalyst for encouraging development as well as supporting business in Newark’s downtown, bringing in patrons to eat at local restaurants and to frequent retailers as they come to watch New Jersey Devils hockey, Seton Hall University men’s basketball, and attend more than 175 concerts, family shows and special events each year.
Newark, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, drew national attention when Amazon chose it as one of 20 city finalists for the e-commerce giant’s second headquarters back in January 2018. While Newark wasn’t chosen, local officials said just making that list put the city on the map as a new, serious contender in attracting tech firms and other companies. Now they hope the spotlight on the 12-year-old Prudential Center does the same.
“The sheer fact that the VMAs are coming to Newark is pretty huge, right?” said Aisha Glover, chief executive of the nonprofit Newark Alliance and the former city official who spearheaded Newark’s Amazon proposal. “So you would typically expect them to be coming into L.A. or maybe New York. And so another kind of nod in our favor and feather in our cap is the unexpected underdog of Newark coming through and folks really starting to pay attention to what’s going on here.”
New York City, at both Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan and Barclays Center in Brooklyn, as well as Los Angeles, have been the usual locations for the VMAs, a star-studded event started in 1984 that features performances by the music industry’s hottest artists, an audience of luminaries, and invariably some outrageous stunt that will be shared through social media. MTV has only strayed from those cities a handful of times, when it held its awards show in Miami and Las Vegas.
The Newark arena can hold 15,000 people, and it was set to be a full house for the VMAs days before the event, according to Sean Saadeh, Prudential Center’s executive vice president of entertainment. And Newark police prepared for another 7,500 fans to show up to catch a glimpse of their favorite band or singer on the red carpet.
MTV cited New Jersey’s music bona fides when it announced it was holding the VMAs in Newark this year, citing the state’s musical heritage and artists who will be performing and hail from New Jersey, the land of Bruce Springsteen. And a host of Garden State natives and residents were booked to present awards, including former Giants player Victor Cruz, actor John Travolta and actor-rapper Ice-T.
“Once again, the eyes of the music industry will turn to one of the top 10 busiest arenas in the world, Prudential Center,” Scott O’Neil, chief executive of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates the venue, said in April when MTV announced the VMAs were coming to Newark. “We look forward to continuing to tell the story of this world-renowned venue and the positive change it has generated through music and entertainment in Newark and across the state of New Jersey.”
For Newark, it’s an opportunity to show off the city and its spurt of redevelopment, a comeback in the face of urban problems such as poverty and crime. MTV was set to use the streets around Prudential Center, as well as a new 3-acre park, Mulberry Commons, that this summer opened directly across from the arena for its telecast and other events, according to Prudential Center officials.
In a coup for the city, this summer Mars Wrigley — the maker of iconic candy brands including M&Ms, Milky Way, Galaxy and Skittles — said it was relocating its offices and consolidating its U.S. headquarters in Newark. Its new location is at the Ironside building, the redevelopment of a former warehouse into office space by developer Edison Properties. The property is on the other end of Mulberry Commons, with a view of Prudential Center. The building was part of a combined package of sites that Newark pitched to Amazon for its so-called HQ2.
Mars Wrigley scheduled a VMA viewing party for several hundred guests on the rooftop of the Ironside, Glover said. In addition, Mars Wrigley sponsored a prerecorded concert segment that was filmed several weeks ago at Newark Symphony Hall to air during the VMAs, according to NJ.com.
Mars Wrigley declined to comment, MTV didn’t respond to requests for comment, and the city directed questions to Glover. But Newark could use some good publicity to offset its recent much-publicized struggles.
Newark is in the middle of a crisis over high lead levels in its water. Thousands of residents have been told to avoid their taps and drink from packaged bottles. In a story in The New York Times on Sunday, critics blamed Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and former Mayor Cory Booker, now a U.S. senator, with failing to take proper action on the situation, thus creating “one of the biggest environmental crises to hit an American city in recent years.”
During a news conference just hours before the awards show on Monday, Essex County officials addressed the issue by announcing a $120 million bond program to hasten the replacement of old lead pipes in Newark.
The Jonas Brothers, nominated for VMAs themselves, Sunday prerecorded a performance outside of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, a once-beleaguered municipality that, like Newark, is enjoying a rebirth. The Stone Pony is a club where Springsteen performed when he was a rising talent in the 1970s. In the wake of his fame, he still drops by to do surprise sets. The Jonas Brothers segment will air during the awards show.
Prudential Center has been angling for the VMAs.
“We’ve been in contact with Viacom for some time, and I think that Viacom has taken notice of some of the amazing work and content that has come through Prudential Center over the last few years, the diversity of the programming that I think was intriguing to them,” Saadeh said.
One of the arena’s allures is that it is home to the Grammy Museum Experience Prudential Center, which opened in October 2017. The 8,200-square-foot area is the first Grammy Museum outpost on the East Coast, and features educational programming and interactive permanent and traveling exhibits, including a spotlight on legendary Grammy winners from New Jersey.
MTV came to the Prudential Center starting Aug. 12 to prepare the venue for the VMAs, according to Saadeh.
He adds that performers say the building is easy to work with for efficient productions, and “that bodes well for us for the future of not only driving our core business, which is the concerts and family shows – which by the way we’ve doubled concerts over the last four years from 2015 to where we are today – it bodes well for us in the future as it relates to doing more of these awards shows and TV production.”
He said instead of the 800 to 1,000 part-time jobs generated by a concert, the awards show will produce almost 1,500. The Newark Alliance usually does an economic impact analysis, in conjunction with the Greater Newark Visitors and Convention Bureau, after a major event in the city like the VMAs, according to Glover.
“But we know just anecdotally and through qualitative analysis that the hotels are booked, the businesses are excited and benefit,” she said. They “see an uptick whenever the Prudential Center is booked.”
Saadeh said the center has 175 events and 2 million people coming through the door. Saadeh declined to discuss any of the financial arrangements relating to MTV and the arena or the city, which is mounting a massive security effort, which includes the FBI, for the show.
Last Friday, Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose suggested that downtown businesses on Monday consider letting employees leave work early or work from home because of the street closings for the VMAs and expected traffic gridlock. He also advised anyone coming into Newark to take mass transit.
“We’d like the downtown businesses treat this like a major blizzard, except we know it’s coming a few days in advance,” Ambrose said in a statement.
Newark has hosted bigger events than the VMAs, such as Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1995 and a stop by President Bill Clinton, according to Ambrose. But he acknowledged that the VMAs will draw a lot of attention.
“All eyes will be on the event,” he said at a news conference. “All eyes will be on the city.”