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The Fate of Main Street

by Jayne Jacova Feld; Photo by Jeff Anderson
Revitalization efforts are helping area communities reclaim downtown.

When Joanne Mortimer was a child growing up in Maple Shade, Main Street was a wonderful universe unto itself. More than a retail block, it was a destination: home to the heavily-trafficked post office, hardware store, movie theater, a Rexall pharmacy with its signature long counters and soda fountain, as well as several stores selling penny candy and other trinkets.

“It was a wonderful place to be. It was alive,” recalls Mortimer, a lifelong resident and realtor with Prudential McHugh Realty.

But like other Main Streets across South Jersey, the slow demise of Maple Shade’s traditional shopping and social corridor can be traced to the advent of the malls and suburban sprawl. More recently, the rise of discount super stores, Internet commerce and the depressed economy have only led to further decline and disinvestment.

While it may seem unlikely, given such modern-day obstacles, Main Street in Maple Shade is poised to reclaim its place as the hub of small-town life. Thanks to community-wide efforts and partnerships with state and local government, a farmers market turned Gazebo Park into a destination on Saturday mornings. New businesses arrive in style with grand opening ceremonies, and community volunteer activities revolve around Main Street improvement projects, including the renovation of the train station and the planting of potters lining the block. Main Street’s presence is also alive in the virtual world. A new website devoted to the revitalization effort heralds upcoming events, and the farmers market is making friends on Facebook.

“We still want to draw in more retail businesses and we’re going to have to seek more private and community funding if this program is going to survive,” says Mortimer, president of Main Street Maple Shade Inc., a designation that allows the organization access to state-sponsored training and re- sources. “But little by little, it’s coming back.”

Faced with the same economic challenges, municipalities across South Jersey are employing numerous approaches to reclaim downtowns. In Haddonfield, for example, one of the key ingredients has been the willingness of some 200 businesses along the Kings Highway corridor to pay into a Business Improvement District (BID) tax that generates some $250,000 annually for marketing efforts to recruit businesses. The town also offers special events, such as the highly successful First Fridays, in which stores stay open late the first Friday of each month, restaurants offer al fresco dining and entertainers line the streets.

In Medford, previously non-aligned community groups have come together recently to form Medford Works!, a multi-faceted approach to promoting the historic Main Street that includes the easing of regulations for setting up shop in historic buildings, special events to woo perspective businesses and even new signage promoting the many free parking lots that are close by.

Interestingly, Harrison Township’s efforts to promote its Main Street are tied to the creation of Richwood Village, a town center on 380 acres of undeveloped land that will eventually include megastores, a new town hall, an elementary school and residential housing, as well as parks and preserved spaces. The massive project will not be competing with the township’s Victorian downtown, insists Mayor Louis Manzo; it will be complementary. As work progresses on Richwood Village, the township has also set aside some $700,000 from fees collected over the years connected to home construction in the township.

That funding will be used for downtown streetscaping improvements. The township is also offering tax abatements, among other enticements, to recruit BYOB restaurants and other unique businesses to its Victorian-era storefronts.

In another twist to the traditional downtown dilemma, the Voorhees Town Center is creating a Main Street in a township that previously didn’t have one.

Standing in the footprint of the Echelon Mall, the $160 million investment also created a new home for Voorhees Town Hall, office space, 425 residential apartments and townhouses, as well as the Main Street-inspired Boulevard, featuring retail, restaurants and services.

“It’s starting to become a place where people don’t need to drive their car or leave their community to get all their needs met,” says Joseph Coradino, president of PREIT Services, the operating arm of a publicly-traded company that operates the Voorhees mall and others in 13 states. “It’s starting to sound like a downtown of any city.”

In these South Jersey communities, such efforts have been credited with stemming decline to varying degrees. Whether they will be enough to revitalize downtowns remains to be seen. But don’t count them out, say local business experts and academics.

“I still think there is an opportunity for mom and pop businesses because nobody behaves quite like an owner/operator, especially in the way they treat their customers,” says Gary Rago, director of the Small Business Development Center of Rutgers University in Camden. “This is one area where they can do better than the chain stores.”

The premise that all business is moving online or to big box stores is increasingly being questioned, adds Darren B. Nicholson, a business professor at the Rohrer College of Business at Rowan University. The recent debt rating down-grade of Best Buy is a sign that the giant electronics retailer is failing to pull in expected sales. Meanwhile, small businesses on any street anywhere can compete with the larger chain stores and online businesses by using relatively inexpensive technology and social networking strategies to increase exposure and build a loyal customer base, says Nicholson.

“It’s really about getting into the consumption cycle,” explains Nicholson. “Savvy businesses are using technology to always stay connected to their customers, letting them know about their wares and services, and giving them incentives to try and retry (merchandise and services).”

In turn, loyal customers will often share the information with their network of friends, he adds.

In Haddonfield, technology has played a role in the borough’s continued success, says Mayor Tish Colombi, noting that the various special events, including First Fridays, have a Facebook presence. The borough periodically sponsors educational seminars to help businesses capitalize on social media.

But the true groundwork for recovery was laid out 10 years ago when elected officials plucked down $125,000 for a two- year study of the downtown. The end result was a report that laid out many of the plans followed today, including the establishment of the BID and—unique to Haddonfield—the hiring of a full-time retail coordinator whose job is to actively recruit retailers that would thrive and add to the borough’s unique mix of businesses.

“We have sought to differentiate ourselves by bringing in independently-owned boutique businesses with great customer service that are well-run and well-managed,” explains Lisa Herd, the retail coordinator, noting the Kings Highway corridor’s occupancy rate stands at an astounding 95 percent.

“It’s part of the whole Haddonfield experience.”

Revitalization efforts in Medford have been a grass-roots response to the growing concern over the number of “for sale” and “for lease” signs that have been popping up in the Victorian-era storefronts, says Janet Carlson Giardina, a founding member of Medford Works!

The group recently sponsored its second open house event to generate interest and enthusiasm for Medford businesses.

In addition to showing vacant storefronts to perspective business owners, the event featured financial advisors, local banks and representatives of the township’s economic development commission to offer guidance to interested buyers or renters.

“This is a totally grassroots movement that started with people talking over coffee and chocolate that has grown exponentially,” says Giardina. “We’re working on a shoestring budget and enthusiasm.”

Harrison Township’s Main Street perhaps has faired better than most in recent years. Warren’s Hardware, a mom and pop store, has not only managed to stay open but has actually expanded services and thrived, notes Mayor Manzo. Health food stores, eateries and floral shops line the north end as more service oriented doctors, attorneys and accountants have settled into the southern end. But as the township has been engrossed in finalizing the plan for Richwood Village, it became clear that Main Street needs a facelift, which in turn would attract a few more eateries and other distinctive businesses that would help maintain its charm.

“Main Street is not going to compete with Richwood,” says Manzo. “Richwood is going to be a retail-shopping destination. The closest one to here is Deptford. The idea for the Main Street area is to be unique, small, quaint and intimate.”

In contrast, Voorhees’ approach has been to create a Main Street out of the ashes of the erstwhile Echelon Mall. While the ambitious project has taken more time than perhaps expected, given the economic downturn and sheer size of the plan, Coradino says the tide is turning. The Boulevard, which is the Main Street-inspired area, is especially expected to take off as new, exciting restaurants open, including a Redstone Grill and Osteria Duo, which will be operate under former Catelli chef Lou Imbesi. In addition, Coradino says he’s close to sealing a deal with a brewery/restaurant.

Meanwhile, the vacancy rate has gone down from 40 percent to 20 percent within the last six months, while 84 percent of residential dwellings are now occupied.

“I think Town Hall’s move here (in May) has made a huge difference,” says Coradino.

“All the operations along the Boulevard and the mall have recognized increases in sales because of Town Hall. We have a lot of work to do in front of us, but we are clearly starting to pick up some momentum.

“When one looks at Voorhees, we’ve introduced a completely different use. We right-sized the mall and built residential, street-level retail and office space,” he adds. “The bottom line is it’s taken awhile as we’ve gone through this process, but we are really beginning to see some very good results.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 10 (October, 2011).
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