Chocolate Factory Theater acquired a permanent home, now it needs costly renovations

Chocolate Factory Theater co-founder Sheila Lewandowki has a new home for her experimental performing arts space thanks to Robert Salerni (l.) and her expertise at networking.
By Bill Parry

The co-founder of the Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City was among the hundreds of borough business and cultural leaders who trekked to Albany Tuesday to take part in the second annual Queens Day for a chance to mingle with lawmakers while showcasing the products of more than 50 food and beverage purveyors.

In between presentations, Sheila Lewandowski was networking, a talent she has perfected during the past dozen years as executive director of the award-winning experimental performing arts space in the Hunters Point section of Long Island City.

“You have to put yourself out there and represent your community,” Lewandowski said.

But she was also on a mission to arrange grants for the renovations of The Chocolate Factory Theater’s new permanent home in Dutch Kills. Lewandowski and co-founder Brian Rogers acquired a 7,500-square-foot former industrial building at 38-29 24th St. for $3.8 million with the help of city funds, but they are currently in the process of raising $1.2 million to renovate the structure.

“We’re about halfway there. Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan has pledged $350,000 towards the upgrades, so while I’m here I’m trying to get some of the paperwork moving,” She said the former factory has “wonderful bones, it’s exactly what we’re hoping for” but it is in need of necessary building code improvements, the construction of restrooms, the installation of a main performance space, a rehearsal studio, a community space, a lobby and offices.

Lewandowski launched a successful Kickstarter campaign last month that raised $40,000.

“It was more than 400 different people, mainly fellow artists and neighbors that came through for us from $1 to $3,000,” Lewandowski said and while she has secured private grants for some of the work so far, Lewandowski will continue to network.

“It took nearly 2 1/2 years since we shook hands on the deal to actually become the owner and during that time many grants went to other organizations,” Lewandowski said. “It’s a very big state and there is a lot of competition.”

It was her knack for networking that created the opportunity to acquire the new space. Several years ago, Lewandowski accepted an invitation to speak at a real estate at the now defunct Water’s Edge restaurant.

Real estate broker Alfonso Hollorman of Lee & Associates, was among the business leaders in attendance and heard Lewandowski speak of the importance of art and the pressures artists and cultural institutions were under to fight for survival against the pressures of real estate in western Queens. The broker saved her business card. Then he learned a client, Robert Salerni, wanted to sell his former dye-making factory and specifically wished his building would be acquired by a local arts organization. Hollormon put Salerni in touch with Lewandowski.

“We had someone who wanted it to be a creative space. He knew exactly what he wanted it to be,” she said. “If he didn’t have that desire, his factory would have become just another hotel. He stuck with us throughout the entire 2 1/2-year process, from the handshake to the contract,” she said. “He’s a very honorable person.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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