Willis leaves a town let down Disappointment: While action-film star celebrates the opening of his new Planet Hollywood restaurant in Baltimore, another city mourns what jTC could have been.

July 25, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow, stubble-king Bruce Willis will blow hard on his harmonica at the gala opening of the Inner Harbor's new Planet Hollywood, as if he didn't have a care, or a wife, in the world.

But while he's promoting this thriving waterfront business in Baltimore, he's trying to unload a less promising slice of waterfront up the road a piece in Penns Grove, N.J., next to his hometown, leaving a crestfallen community in his wake.

Baltimore's is a modest Planet Hollywood, not exactly like the ones in Cannes or Dubai or New York City. But just the same, it's a money-making proposition, and Willis is about nothing if not money. He and estranged wife Demi are said to be worth $100 million, and if and when they divorce, it will be more like the breakup of AT&T than a marriage.

Planet Hollywood has been very good to them; Willis and Moore are two of several principal owners. The international chain of glitzy restaurants reported profits of $21 million last year. To piggyback on the Inner Harbor's proven success, and to take advantage of its captive audience of 15 million visitors each year, is a safe bet.

On the other hand, Penns Grove, adjoining the township of Carneys Point, where Willis grew up, was not a safe bet. When it was bypassed by the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the New Jersey Turnpike in the 1950s -- it's just across the Delaware River from Wilmington -- the once-vibrant town went into a prolonged slump, and today, poverty, crime and boarded-up buildings attest to its entrenched depression.

For decades, the town declined when employment at the enormous Du Pont chemical works nearby fell from 25,000 to 3,000. Penns Grove's population hit a high of 10,000 during World War I and has now dwindled to less than 5,000.

But for a year or two, the citizens of Penns Grove really believed their native son would turn the place around. Willis often returned to visit his father, now retired from Du Pont, and to attend Penns Grove Regional High School reunions. When Bruce was in town, buying a round of drinks at a local bar or ambling down Main Street, word spread quickly.

A graduate of the class of 1973, Willis is fondly remembered as a rowdy cut-up, popular for his pranks and antics, in spite of a severe stutter that he eventually overcame. After high school, Willis worked temporarily at Du Pont, then studied acting for two years at Montclair State College before seeking his fortune in New York.

In 1995, Willis returned to town and spent $1 million on 12 waterfront acres, an abandoned bank building and the borough's grandest stone house for his father and stepmother. Willis' company, Screwball Inc., announced plans for a $50 million marina, replete with movie theaters, bars, a fish and farmers market.

The town was giddy, beside itself with excitement. New businesses opened in anticipation. Morale turned around.

The marina never happened. A year ago, Screwball put the waterfront land and the bank building up for sale.

Perhaps it was the maze of permits and paperwork that Screwball would have to navigate. Perhaps it was the dwindling prospects of Pennsylvania and Delaware approving launching riverboat gambling, literally a stone's throw from Penns Grove. Maybe it was clear the project could never succeed. Maybe the hyperactive Willis just lost interest.

Attempts to reach Screwball were unsuccessful. Willis' Los Angeles publicity agent, Paul Bloch, would not comment on the Penns Grove project and declined to reveal Screwball's status or location.

Penns Grove appears all too accustomed to disappointment, but Mayor Paul J. Morris is gracious and diplomatic when discussing Willis. "He's had a positive impact," Morris says. He paid the property's delinquent tax bill, and maintains the property.

Willis' change of heart is nothing new, Morris says, wistfully. "It's a nice little town with a lot of good people. We've had our hopes for this riverfront property for years and years before he came ... I'm sure there will be another investor down the line."

The Rev. Herbert "Skip" Howard, a local activist who grew up in Penns Grove, remembers when the town was "a flashy community, the stores were all big, and we had an abundance of everything."

Howard hasn't lost hope that Willis will return to Penns Grove when the time is right. "I believe he's going to come back, to building something good for our community." It would be something that would be appropriate for families, and for Willis' parents, Herbert says. Not gambling, or something that would have "riff-raff coming down that way," but riverboats "just for the pleasure of riding."

Althea Spence, a Penns Grove council member, truly believed that Willis' vision would materialize. When it didn't, "it kind of hurt, it really did."

What really annoys Spence is that neither Willis or Screwball ever adequately explained why they changed their minds.

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