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Rio Grande Entertainment Complex Targets May 15 Opening

The center is filled with ornate chandeliers.  
Collin Hall

The center is filled with ornate chandeliers. 

By Collin Hall

RIO GRANDE – More than $2 million over budget, the planned entertainment complex in County Commons in Rio Grande is the most difficult project Clint Bunting, chief executive officer of Town Square Entertainment, has ever worked on. 

The project was first presented to county officials in October 2019 as a revitalization of a long-defunct commercial lot in Rio Grande. Nearly four years and a pandemic later, it finally targets a May 15 opening date. 

The project brings a complete overhaul to the site that was previously Frank Theaters. The new project brings movies back to Rio Grande, but it also brings an arcade, two restaurants, an outdoor beer garden, a golfing simulator, and 16 bowling lanes. The project ballooned in cost as the Covid-induced supply chain woes swept the world. 

“The project almost fell through several times,” Bunting said. “Covid really scared us. We nearly dropped out of the project. We had to close all of our theaters. It was a mess.”  

Bunting was among other theater owners who sued Gov. Phil Murphy over the closure of movie theaters during the pandemic. 

Today, the project is full steam ahead. Bunting took the Herald on a tour of the 60,000 square foot space, which was abuzz with construction as the opening date draws close.    

A Bigger, Better Movie Theater  

The whole building is open concept. There are easy sightlines between each of the main attractions. The ceiling is tall and there are a lot of places to sit scattered around the large main room.  

The center of the complex is a concession stand and box office with wide, wavy countertops. Bunting said that the grand design is intended to elevate the theater experience and bring guests back to a time when theaters had a bit more architectural flair. 

The movie theater will not open alongside the rest of the facility. Brett Denafo, operations manager for Town Square Entertainment, said the theater is targeting a June 15 opening date. The new theater will have eight screens, four more than the company’s Harbor Square Theatre in Stone Harbor. 

At 50 feet, the biggest screen is nearly double the size of the blockbuster screen in Stone Harbor. It comes equipped with Dolby Atmos surround sound, while the other screens are equipped with 7.1 Dolby sound systems. One of the new screens can play 3D movies, which Denafo said have seen a recent spike in popularity. 

Denafo said that Town Square Entertainment has been incredibly successful in bringing movie theaters back to Cape May and Atlantic counties.  

“We control South Jersey. I don’t think another theater company is crazy enough to come in.”  

He said the Tilton Square Theater in Northfield is “one of the highest-grossing theaters in the whole country.” 

Denafo said that Frank Theaters “lost their focus” as they expanded quickly in different regions of the country. “But we’re exclusively focused on South Jersey,” he said.  

Affordable for Everyone  

Bunting stressed that although the center’s final layout will have a higher-end feel, with premium materials and expensive attention to detail, he and Denafo want the place to be affordable for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Part of the project’s funding came upfront from Cape May County government. Town Square Entertainment will reimburse the county with either a fixed sum of money or a portion of its revenue each year, whichever is higher. 

“This is economic development for the whole county,” Bunting said. “This is different than our other development projects. We see ourselves as stewards of this space. It excites me to be able to provide this for people who might not otherwise be able to afford a high-end experience on the shore. We want that for everybody,” he said, “and I don’t think the county expected us to do as good of a job as we did.”  

More Bowling in Cape May County  

The project brings 16 bowling lanes to Cape May County, making it only the second operating bowling alley on the peninsula. The closure of Mouse Trap Lanes, in Woodbine, left Island Bowl, in Wildwood, as the only place to bowl for many years. 

The 16 lanes use “state of the art” materials, Denafo said, but use an “old-fashioned” ball return system. Guests can see their ball run back to them with an above-ground ball track. Most newer ball returns push balls back to bowlers using underground tubes, but Denafo said that he was excited by the novelty of an above-ground ball return. 

Several bowling lanes can be rented out for private events.  

Food and Beer 

The complex has two restaurants with different goals. One is more of an open bar with quick eats like fresh pizza, easily accessible for bowlers. The other is a restaurant with a full kitchen that serves premium dishes like salmon and stuffed flounder. 

The center also has an outdoor “beer garden” with artificial turf and bright landscaping. Guests who drink here will be fully secluded from the parking lot by several hedges.  

“It’s kind of like what MudHen did in Wildwood,” Bunting said.  

Out there, guests can play games like cornhole and can lounge while they drink. 

A concessionaire liquor license will allow the complex to serve alcohol at each of these locations. This special license is only available when the business is controlled in some form by a government entity. In this case, Cape May County owns the land where the complex is being built.  

An Uphill Battle 

The project has been a long time coming. There have been many hiccups along the way – supply chain woes, price increases, and objections to the center’s liquor license – but the final product represents a significant investment for both the county and Town Square Entertainment.  

Bunting said that the project would not have happened without the significant support of people in local government, including County Administrator Kevin Lare, County Counsel Jeffrey Lindsay, and North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello. 

“It was all so expensive to build,” Bunting said, but as the opening date approaches, he and Denafo both expect success.  

“There’s nothing like this around here,” he said. “It excites me to be able to help the community in this way.”

Contact the author, Collin Hall, at chall@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600,e ext. 156.

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