A spaceship. A Las Vegas boxing ring. A swanky Upper East Side apartment.
Jeffrey Rotwitt’s Sun Center Studios in Delaware County has been transformed in a variety of striking ways through the magic of modern cinema. But if Rotwitt has his way, its most ambitious metamorphosis lies ahead: a sprawling hotel and theme park that would serve as the Mid-Atlantic’s answer to Walt Disney World or Universal Studios, four miles from the heart of Chester.
“We’re not confronting the immense task that Walt Disney had in the ’60s, when he had all that swampland in Florida, to get people to go there,” Rotwitt, 68, said last week in a conference room on the studio’s 33-acre property in Chester Township. “They’re already coming to the region. Our goal is to have them extend their stay.”
Rotwitt’s bold vision is a 175-room hotel, outdoor event space, and indoor theme park, all attached to a fully functioning back lot that has helped create nine major movies since 2010 in an unlikely location: an industrial park next door to one of the state’s poorest cities.
The hospital that Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis roamed in Glass was built within Sun Center’s walls. Creed’s climactic title fight was shot there, with the help of a green screen and about 1,300 extras.
The theme-park/hotel complex is not a new proposal: Rotwitt, a lawyer and developer with a long, colorful career in the region, has been pushing it since before he broke ground on the studios in 2010.
And, for half a decade, Rotwitt has been quietly applying annually for state grant money through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to make it a reality. Each time, he has been passed over. The most recent application — his fifth — was filed in January.
This time, Rotwitt is confident that he’ll get the money, $7.5 million that he says will help him secure the remaining $187 million needed to finish the expansion. Raising that sum is a daunting task, to be sure.
Still, he said, “we’re very sanguine that this calendar year, we’ll get the ball in the end zone. But that’s by no means a guarantee. A lot of people hate to be the first money in; they want to be second or third.”
Rotwitt said he’s lining up private investment, including from foreign power players in China and the Middle East. Pressed for details, Rotwitt demurred, saying it was too early in the process to name names.
“We have a lot of people around the world, quite frankly, who have expressed great interest in this,” he said. “A lot of the international sources, they live in either authoritarian jurisdictions or socialist jurisdictions. And they regard government involvement as the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.'”
If all goes as planned, Rotwitt will break ground on the complex later this year. He envisions operating the indoor theme park year-round, relying heavily on virtual reality, holograms, and other digital attractions.
In his proposal to the state, Rotwitt estimates the hotel and theme park will create 6,000 jobs. Sun Center now employs seven, the proposal said.
Beyond Sun Center’s walls, neighbors treat it with bemusement, the majority of their interaction with the studio coming from passersby who ask for directions to it. Chester Township is a sliver of a municipality, housing just more than 3,000 people in 1.5 square miles. Travel a few blocks in any direction, and you’re either in Chester or Aston.
Rotwitt has some detractors, who point to highly publicized incidents including his 2010 firing from a Center City law firm.
That firing, from Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, came after The Inquirer disclosed that he had accepted a secondary, undisclosed payment from a developer during the search for a new Family Court building. Three years later, in Haverford Township, Rotwitt returned $600,000 given to him by township officials without a vote to find a developer for the old Haverford State Hospital, a payment a grand jury later said he obtained through a “ruse.”
Rotwitt denies any wrongdoing in both cases.
Still, many praise his community outreach efforts, such as the time in 2017 when he brought in students from Chester Upland School District and nearby charters to visit the set of The Upside, a feel-good movie from last Christmas starring Kevin Hart. Hart made a surprise appearance, to the delight of the students.
But, largely, residents regard his studio as something of a mystery, its facade tucked into the industrial park among facilities for Frito-Lay and Ingersoll Rand. And Rotwitt’s long-standing push to build a theme park on the grounds of the studio is virtually unknown.
“He wants to build what?” asked Lisa Johnson, gobsmacked, as she stood behind the counter of Yanks Farms, a local produce stand on nearby Concord Road.
“It’d be good for the kids,” she added, in between tallying receipts. “And I think people will be all right with it if they hire people from the inner city, because that’s who will be sending their kids there and that’s where we need to keep our money."
Elsewhere in the township, news of the plan was met with skepticism.
“It’ll be nice, but it’ll never happen,” said William McIntire, 67, a lifelong township resident, as he stood inside the People’s Mini Mart, practically at the foot of the I-95 ramp leading into town. “Maybe in Marcus Hook or Delaware he’d get the money from the state. But here, we’re five minutes long, and we can’t get anything done.”
Township leaders, including Board of Supervisors President Dennis Daye and Chester Upland School District Receiver Peter Barsz, declined to comment on the theme-park proposal, citing an ongoing discussion with Rotwitt about taxes on the studio property.
County records show that Rotwitt owes $1.7 million in property taxes on the studio, a sum dating to 2016. Rotwitt, however, denies that he owes any money, and says that accounting is rooted in the intricacies of a tax abatement he signed with the county in 2009 to help build the studio.
Regardless, officials in the county tax office said Rotwitt is making consistent, quarterly payments toward his balance.
As he pushes for his ambitious new project, Rotwitt has a strong ally in former Chester Township Supervisor Bobby May.
May, who lives across the street from the studio, helped broker the abatement that made Sun Center a reality 10 years ago. And he has the utmost confidence that Rotwitt — a guy he says can “turn any amount of lemons into lemonade” — can bring his latest vision to life.
“When the the casino came to Chester, when the stadium came, people said, ‘Oh look at all the great jobs,’” May said. “This will be even better in that regard, and that’s all that Jeff cares about. It’s about giving back to the area.”