Can a Philly Movie Studio Really Compete with Hollywood?

Jeffrey Rotwitt built Sun Center Studios in Chester to bring blockbuster filmmaking to the area. Will Smith showed up. But will other stars follow?

Jeffrey Rotwitt is unusual for a power lawyer in this region. Other guys do the alpha-male thing; in a hundred tiny ways, they make it clear that they can make your life unpleasant if you cross them. Rotwitt, by contrast, operates almost entirely by force of charm. He’s in his early 60s, with a jowly face and hair the color of a new dime. He lives in an opulent Radnor estate called Deilwydd, but his accent is shot-and-a-beer. His signature move isn’t the threat, but the wink. There’s no air of menace surrounding him, only a perpetual low-hanging fog of happy talk. All the people I spoke with about Rotwitt told me the same thing: He’s one of the most positive people they’ve ever met. “On a rainy, miserable day, Jeff will find a way to use the water,” says Robert May Jr., a councilman in Chester Township. “Everything, in Jeff’s mind, is possible.”

He grew up in Olney. His father was a buyer for Sears Roebuck. He went to public school—Olney High—and moved on to Penn, eventually earning an MBA at Wharton as well as a Penn law degree. In 1975, he joined Obermayer, a legendary Philly firm, working in the corporate-banking and business-law section. He made friends easily. As his Rolodex fattened, he gained a reputation as a man who knew a lot of people and could use his contacts to close difficult deals. (Former Obermayer colleague Jim Young describes Rotwitt as both “brilliant” and “consistently optimistic about outcomes.”) Rotwitt’s work with the firm started him on a path to becoming a real estate developer; in the late ’80s, he began representing Amtrak, and when Amtrak execs ran into problems on a planned renovation of 30th Street Station—basically, they couldn’t find the money—they asked him for help. “I got turned down at 46 of the finest lenders in the world, domestic and international,” Rotwitt says. “I had to keep knocking on doors until I found people who bought into the vision and could see it.” He eventually secured financing from a bank in France.

The station renovation was Rotwitt’s first major public project, the one that saw him “breaking out of the minor leagues,” he says. It led to others: a retirement community in Whitemarsh; a professional indoor soccer team, the Philadelphia KiXX, that R­otwitt owned for a time but has since gone dormant. Many of Ro­twitt’s projects drew on his preternatural ability to close complicated transactions. Joe Meo, an influential Republican committeeman in Whitemarsh, says a Rotwitt retirement-home project was almost never built due to initial opposition from local residents. But Rotwitt calmed all of the fears, ultimately working out a deal with the community to preserve 188 acres of open space surrounding the facility. “Jeff was so good at it,” recalls Meo. “He did all the right things.”

On more than one project, though, Rotwitt’s expansive sense of the possible has gotten him into trouble. In 2003, after helping officials in Haverford Township select a developer for a piece of public land, he asked lawmakers to pay his firm part of the final fee, $600,000, before the project was complete. (All along, Rotwitt’s firm had been receiving $7,500 a month from Haverford Township as a retainer.) After a closed-door meeting at which two-thirds of the commissioners were present, the township manager signed off on the advance fee to the firm, according to an investigating grand jury’s report. Soon after, commissioners stepped forward to object, pointing out that the law required a public vote. Rotwitt had to return the money. He tells me his only mistake was not insisting the commissioners hold an immediate public vote after they’d agreed to the fee. “I did not know” that a vote was required, Rotwitt says. “It’s not my job to tell them how to comply with municipal law.”

A few years later, the Inquirer and a lawsuit alleged that Rotwitt appeared to work both sides of a big public real estate deal in the city. First, on behalf of Obermayer, he agreed to help Philadelphia find a new building for its Family Court, then housed in a deteriorating palace on Logan Square. For giving this advice, Rotwitt generated $1.5 million for Obermayer. Then, once the project moved forward, he made additional fees—some $825,000, to be exact—working as a developer along with builder Donald Pulver, according to the suit. The person supervising the Family Court project happened to be Ron Castille, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who told the Inquirer that when he heard that Rotwitt was working on it as a developer, he was incensed; he claimed he’d never been told about Rotwitt’s dual roles. Rotwitt disputes that. Castille sued Obermayer, alleging that Rotwitt had a secret deal with Pulver. The suit was settled last winter, with Obermayer and its insurer agreeing to pay the Philly courts $4 million. Rotwitt paid nothing—“I don’t contribute a nickel to anything,” he told the paper. “From my standpoint, it’s a total victory that corroborates all that I was saying from day one”—but by then, Obermayer had fired him, severing his relationship with the firm after 35 years.

“Most of the people in town know it’s all horseshit,” Rotwitt says of the Family Court controversy. When I ask him if he thinks he did anything wrong, he says, “‘Wrong’ sets off the wrong tone.” He says I should ask if he’d have done anything “differently,” then answers his own question: “No.” He says he is as proud of the new Family Court building, which will be completed in 2015, as he is of the 30th Street Station renovation: “I’m thrilled with what we’ve done.” (Through his spokesperson, Castille twice declined to comment for this story.)

What the controversies reveal is a man comfortable operating in gray areas where others fear to tread. Part of this has to do with Rotwitt’s personality: He’s supremely confident in his own deal-making abilities, his own rectitude. He also knows that some powerful people have his back. Rotwitt is a member of the Pennsylvania Future Fund, the top pro-business PAC in the state. He knows the Republican governor, Tom Corbett, and is close with Dominic Pileggi, the Republican Senate majority leader whose district includes Sun Center. “Jeff reaches across both sides of the aisle,” says Joe Meo. “People know him. He’s a guy who brings people together; he doesn’t divide them.” When I call a well-connected Republican source and ask him if the Family Court scandal has harmed Rotwitt’s reputation in political circles, the source says, “It seemed almost, like, neutral? I don’t know if that impacted: ‘Hey, we’re gonna cut this guy off,’ or ‘He’s bad news.’ I don’t feel that, and I never heard that.” As far as I can tell, there’s no unified anti-Rotwitt constituency, only scattered enemies and a large mass of people who find his public tussles mildly amusing. And who wish him well on his studio project for the simple reason that they stand to gain if he succeeds.