Published On: Mon, Jul 23rd, 2012

Bucks County Playhouse restoration reflects vision of New Hope and Lambertville as entertainment hub

Sherri and Kevin Daugherty are quite busy these days. It’s well known that the Doylestown couple and their Bridge Street Foundation are primarily responsible for saving and renovating the Bucks County Playhouse after it faced extinction near the end of 2010. The revived Playhouse is already offering theater performances and events, and it’s apparent that no expense was spared in the restoration of the historic structure — $3 million in improvements on a $1.8 million building, to be exact.

The result is nothing short of spectacular: the building has been dramatically and tastefully upgraded inside and out. The parking lot and sidewalk leading to the theater finally make sense from a traffic flow point of view, and a fenced off section of waterfront adjacent to the defunct Club Zadar next door has been transformed into a public riverside walkway reminiscent of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Providing greater public access to the Delaware River has long been a dream of many local planners. Although the scenic waterway is vital to the town’s identity, it is largely inaccessible to many visitors, save for a couple of “pocket parks”, riverside restaurants, or a stroll along the bridge to Lambertville. Could the Playhouse and former Club Zadar (also purchased by the Daughertys) with their adjoining promenade and large parking area become another Pike Place Market, the highly successful produce, fish, and crafts center on Seattle’s waterfront?

“There’s a lot of potential,” replied Kevin Daugherty. “You could do an Oktoberfest or a Christmas market, for example. Our view on the promenade is to continue it around the back of the Playhouse, where we’ve designed a series of cascading decks that lead you up to the level where the deck is currently, put a bar out there for patrons and others, and provide a place to sit and enjoy the views — again creating another revenue stream to support the non-profit theater, with the idea that if we do enough of these things, we don’t have to pass the hat as much and we can be true to the community.

“We wanted to create an outdoor space, so once we get the promenade approved and the former Zadar’s property concepts started, we can build a more permanent, inviting pathway down to the promenade, and we also hope to continue the gas lanterns down there, as well,” added Daugherty.

In terms of the former Zadar space, Daugherty indicated that plans have not been finalized yet for its future use, but the ultimate entity will be for-profit and remain publicly accessible, possibly including a bar and art production space. The “publicly accessible” aspect here is key, as many residents have long hoped to avoid the construction of view-blocking private townhouses at the Zadar site. As a for-profit business, the former Club Zadar fits in with the portion of the Daugherty’s ventures not under the Bridge Street Foundation umbrella.

Aside from the Bucks County Playhouse and Zadar site, the Daughertys have also purchased the twin buildings located at 6 East Mechanic St., among the Borough’s oldest, although they haven’t yet decided what do with them. Sherri Daugherty relocated her successful retail fashion store Angel Hearts from Newtown to 12 W. Bridge St., where it provides an upscale anchor on a block reeling from the canal bridge repair of recent years and tough economy. And then there’s the Lambertville Music Hall, an ambitious project embodying the Daugherty’s business model, and potentially putting Lambertville on the live music map.

The proposed Lambertville Music Hall at 57 Bridge St. will be more akin to the Bucks County Playhouse in its non-profit status, with funding by the Daughertys and their Bridge Street Foundation, along with its historical tie-in and self-funding mechanism. Located in the former First Baptist Church, the Music Hall harkens back to its spiritual predecessor, the Lambertville Music Circus, says Bridge Street Foundation President Tanya Cooper. St. John Terrell created the “music circus” form of theater in Lambertville around 1949, and it involved a summer stock theater-in-the-round housed under a circus-style big top on a hill above the town.

A 400-seat music hall with a first-floor restaurant/bar is now envisioned in downtown Lambertville, and again no expense will be spared in its restoration. “We have a commitment to doing things the right way,” observed Cooper.

Taken in toto, the series of real estate ventures undertaken by the Daughertys and the Bridge Street Foundation seem to largely involve saving and restoring neglected landmarks and converting them into self-sustaining organizations. But the moves also provide a glimpse into a future scenario for the economies of New Hope and Lambertville — that of a major entertainment hub located midway between two great cities.

Kevin Daugherty sees things more pragmatically. “These have been a series of happy accidents,” he explained. “We stumbled upon the church when I was looking for office space, and thought it was a great old historic building. We believed that if we gave it a purpose and tried to create a self-sustaining entity, then we could preserve the historical significance of the building for the community. We’re trying to make the church a performing arts space, and that makes a lot of sense given what it had been. That lead us to look around, and we stumbled upon the Playhouse, and realized that it needed some attention, and then it’s been just a sequence of events from there,” continued Daugherty.

But can the up-scaled venues remain accessible to the community in terms of ticket prices?

“It’s a definite focus and a must,” he said. “These are not-for-profit buildings, so the one thing that lets us keep the price down is that we’re not trying to make an enormous profit here, we generate funds that are self-sustaining for the business.

“Frequently non-profits have to do lots of fundraising,” added Dougherty. “But it’s our view that we can improve the performance quality at certain times, like what we’re doing this summer with Jed Bernstein’s performance group, then maybe the ticket prices are higher for some of those kinds of things. Other times of the year, there will be more community involvement-type aspects — kids’ programs, educational programs and more regional type activities — that’s where maybe you’ll see something that’s a little more discounted and accessible,” he said.

Dougherty is also quick to point out that the Playhouse has a large parking lot that provides an additional source of revenue. “The same concept applies to the Lambertville Music Hall, ” he said. “Assuming it follows the same pattern as the theater, we’re going to need additional revenue sources to help support it. We don’t have a parking lot, but we do have a first floor that would make a great restaurant/bar area that people can enjoy at any time and also around the shows, and that can help support the non-profit performing space.”

A business model that could indeed prove successful, if not yet universally accepted. This much is for sure: Sherri and Kevin Daugherty are restoring local landmark structures that have often fallen into neglect, and are doing so without public funds. These projects tie together history, art, entertainment and commercial components, and their growing presence may have a profound effect on the identity and economy of New Hope and Lambertville for years to come.

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  1. pbuk@kki.net.pl' Maxi says:

    Lovely, James!I love New Hope! You’re right…the drive there is gorgeous. There used to be a club caleld Chez Odette in New Hope. Odette was an old (ancient) Zeigfield Follies girl. She would come down the staircase, singing in a gravely voice…and the audience had better be quiet while she performed. What a hoot!Jane (artfully graced)ps Have you been to Hawk Mountain Conservancy? It’s awesome…especially this time of year when the migratory birds fly over.

  2. Now all that has to be done to bring back what was there in the past, is to bring back Equity Summer Stock with Name actors and professional productions, not the amature slop that I was seeing before the theater closed!

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