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Contempo project aims to be kickstarter for rebirth of Passaic

As he walked through the top floor of the vast factory complex in Passaic, the longtime home of his family’s furniture business, Shamir Einhorn recalled the activity he saw there only a decade ago.

“For furniture, we used the entire building — every single floor, every square foot,” he said during a recent tour of the three-story building. He later added, “This whole floor was devoted just to Seaman’s bedrooms. We used to make over a thousand bedrooms a week just for Seaman’s.”

It won’t be long until the space will abuzz with a much different type of activity. With its brick walls, exposed ductwork and 6-inch-thick wood floors, it will become part of a loft-style event center that will host weddings, product launches, fashion shows and a wide range of other functions.

And it’s just one piece of the makeover underway at the Einhorns’ factory.

The family, the owners of Contempo Space, are transforming the nearly 300,000-square-foot building as part of three-pronged, $32 million redevelopment project on the eastern side of Passaic. Along with the top-floor event space, the project also calls for a new flagship store and showroom for their custom furniture business and a high-end retail plaza with more than a dozen tenants.

All while Contempo continues to operate its assembly line operation below the ground floor.

The 20,000-square-foot showroom already has been completed and is the first phase of the project, marking a new chapter for a venture that Einhorn’s father founded in 1978 and moved to Passaic in 1992. The family is scheduled to hold a grand opening ceremony this week, with the hope that the attention will carry over to an event space that already has functions booked for this summer.

“Without any outside financing, any outside push, we’ve done everything ourselves to really push the concept,” Einhorn said. “We believe in Passaic, we believe in this area, that it could be phenomenal.”

The project represents the third act for the property, which was built more than 180 years ago by the Okonite Cable Co.

And stakeholders hope it will be a catalyst for reinventing Passaic, a gritty, 3.2-square-mile city that is a former industrial hub. Mayor Alex Blanco said developers have started to take notice, following improvements to the city’s finances, school system and political atmosphere — leading to proposals such as a 550-unit apartment complex on Market Street and interest on other nearby lots.

But Blanco was emphatic that the Einhorns’ plan “will be the kickstarter, the essence and the driver for major redevelopment in the city.”

“That’s going to give us more credibility to the other developers,” Blanco said. “(They) have already committed to projects anyway, but seeing this is going to give them a heads up and reassure them that what they’re doing — the investment that they’re putting into the city — is going to be secure.”

The Einhorns started to think about redevelopment about two years ago, but only after a dramatic shift in the business that had thrived for more than three decades. Shimon Einhorn, an immigrant from Israel, started the company in Manhattan and created an operation that would build, deliver, install and invoice his custom furniture for big-name retailers such as Levitz, Fortunoff, Macy’s and Seaman’s.

But several of those retailers consolidated or went out of business during the recession. The ones that were left became less concerned with selection and quality, Shamir Einhorn said, and began to look overseas for their furniture products.

For Contempo — which always prided itself on offering dozens of different finishes and product types — it was time for a change. The company shifted to retail about five years ago, in what turned out to be a smooth and fruitful transition.

“We were on the back end of this business — we were familiar with it, so it was easy for us to move from wholesale to retail,” said Shimon Einhorn, 69. “We should have done it a few years earlier.”

The company has since branded itself as Contempo Space, selling everything from wardrobes and room dividers to desks and cabinets — with a heavy emphasis on storage and customizability. And it has continued to thrive largely through its website and mail order catalogs.

But it’s an operation that requires significantly less space than in years past, thanks to improvements in technology.

That triggered the Einhorns’ ideas about how to reuse the cavernous factory complex.

“When the business kind of changed and we had to adapt to the business, we had this space upstairs (where) we felt the best use was using it as loft or event space,” said Shamir Einhorn, 41. “And we make furniture for events, so we understood a little bit of the business. It made sense for us to get into it, and we have a lot of contacts that are going to help us to get involved in bringing people into the space.”

Already, the Einhorns have booked about a dozen events for the 40,000-square-foot event area that it calls Factory 220. The family says it the type of industrial feel that event planners have sought in Brooklyn and Queens, but this venue has the benefit of more than 700 parking spaces.

They also have permits to build a seven-story hotel on the 12-acre property.

When it comes to the showroom, event center and retail segment, the project is slated to be complete by fall 2016. And the family believes the Contempo Plaza shopping district, which will include a supermarket, will be able to capture shoppers who may travel to the area on Sunday because of Bergen County’s blue laws.

“The more market research we did, the more we saw that Passaic … could be a retail hub,” Shamir Einhorn said. “People go now to Wayne … but we can do a great shopping district here that would be in the likes of Boston Commons, Newport, Rhode Island, SoHo, Brooklyn, Queens — where they took these old buildings and turned it into a shopping district.”

Will travel for furniture

The Einhorns hope Contempo Plaza can turn Passaic into a destination that’s driven in part by their furniture business, Contempo Space.

And they have reason to be optimistic — they’ve already seen retail customers come from far and wide to visit their showroom.

“(For) furniture, they’re willing to travel,” said David Einhorn, 32, son of founder Shimon Einhorn. “It’s not like a supermarket where people want it right around the corner. We’ve had customers come from Florida, we had a customer fly in from Arizona. They’ll make a trip out of it. They’ll go to New York City, spend the weekend, spend the day.

“It’s a big purchase. It’s not something they make every day, so they’re willing to make the trip and the investment and time to come out.”

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