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(Spotlight On) Wrightstown

by Christine Switzer
…From the pages of Burlington the Beautiful…

A small town emerges with big commercial prospects.

While many parts of the country have been scaling back and trimming down, Burlington County’s Wrightstown is moving forward with plans for expansion. The small community of fewer than 800 hopes it will blossom into a commercial and cultural hub for the surrounding agricultural and military communities.

Mayor Tom Harper says the town has contracted with Saylor’s Pond Redevelopment, LLC, an affiliate of the Montgomery Group and United Communities in Marlton, to develop a 120-room, business-class hotel with a modern conference center and restaurant. The development deal also includes the construction of a health clinic, which will be the borough’s first healthcare center, and a possible extension campus for a local community college.

The mixed-use commercial development area encompasses approximately 40 acres. As part of Phase I of the project, Saylors Pond Redevelopment, LLC will be developing the first 15 acres of the area and United Communities has also signed a 50-year agreement to build new housing developments for the military bases. This includes the U.S. military-planned mega-base that will combine the nearby military posts of Fort Dix Army Base, McGuire Air Force Base and Lakehurst Naval Engineering Station into the nation’s first combined military facility.

Imagining the Possibilities
Settled originally in the 1700s, Wrightstown boomed throughout the 1800s as a stop on the north-south railroad route between Philadelphia and New York City. The 20th century saw the borough evolve into a military-support town, but after the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military shifted its basic training to other locations, the town’s primary source of income dried up.

In the early 1990s, Wrightstown’s leaders agreed on a revitalization plan, acquiring land back from the military bases which was taken during WWII and outlining steps to establish a viable commercial center for both the military and surrounding farming communities, including Springfield and New Hanover. The first phase of the development, including the hotel and conference center, is slated for completion in the next two years, and will be supported through a combination of public and private investment.

“Wrightstown has always been a commercially based community,” says Mayor Harper, who has helped to spearhead the town’s unfolding development. “For some time, we have been looking for ways to improve development and to provide needed services and resources to the surrounding communities.” Harper says that the borough hopes to draw people not only from the military community, but also from smaller bedroom communities like Cookstown and Chesterfield that surround the town.

Preserving a Rich History
In addition to fostering commercial and cultural development, Wrightstown is also seeking to find ways to preserve its rich history. The borough recently acquired a former Methodist church that dates back to the 1700s with plans of preserving it as a historic site. The church is located near Wrightstown’s downtown, and it is surrounded by two long city blocks of homes that date back to the 1800s, many of which were converted into rooming houses during the 1900s to support visiting military families. In nearby Springfield, less than a mile drive north, are two Quaker meeting houses that date from the 1700s and are in various stages of historic restoration.

The area’s military history is primarily showcased through the Fort Dix Museum, which traces the establishment of the base during World War I and its evolution through the 20th century, and the Navy Lakehurst Information Center, 25 minutes away in Ocean County, which has preserved the location of and artifacts from the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. In the early 1980s, the military also established a veterans’ memorial cemetery in Wrightstown, named after Brigadier General William C. Doyle.

Revitalizing Downtown
Once the conference center is built, the borough’s commercial renewal will include a second phase of development that is still in the planning stages, but will most likely extend the mixed-use commercial development outside of Fort Dix and help to provide additional space for regional and national retailers and services. Says Harper: “Once we move forward with the hotel and conference center, the niche businesses will fill in to make out the rest.”

In addition, the town has been expanding and upgrading its municipal services, opening a new fire station this spring and planning a new community center and borough hall during the next few years. Besides the town’s commercial and municipal development, Wrightstown leaders hope to see the community experience cultural revitalization as well.

“The borough was once home to a flourishing farmer’s grange, which hosted a variety of community and cultural events,” says Laurence Lownds, a lifetime Wrightstown resident and town council member. “With the redevelopment, Wrightstown will hopefully become both a commercial and cultural center again.”

When You Go

Fort Dix Museum

Navy Lakehurst Information Center
Pre-registration required

Published (and copyrighted) in Burlington the Beautiful; County of Opportunities, Spring/Summer 2009.
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