EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Once one of South Jersey’s premier shopping destinations, the area around the Shore Mall has become a commercial dead zone.

Crews have begun demolishing almost one-third of the mall at the Black Horse Pike and Tilton Road. Across the pike, the Cardiff Power Center is a desolate landcape separating tenantless anchor stores.

Most of the big-name retailers and upscale gift shops were long ago replaced with closeout discounters and thrift stores.

“They need to find something that’s going to inspire people to come back,” said Atlantic County historian June Sheridan, who built a home in the township in 1968, the same year the mall opened. “What that is, I don’t know.”

Residents and local officials blame poor accessibility, increased competition and a series of economic downturns for the decades-long deterioration of this section of the otherwise busy thoroughfare.

The situation wasn’t always so dire.

Searstown, a 22-store complex named for its first anchor, was billed as a boon to the local economy when it opened 45 years ago.

“(The) mall is so vital to lend confidence to those who are seeking areas in industrial development (and) residential development,” state Sen. Frank Farley told the crowd that day.

The Shore Mall expanded to 68 merchants within six years of opening. The introduction of casino gambling led to even more growth. By 1980, there were 73 tenants.

Carol Goloff, 50, a Northfield attorney, said the mall provided a lot of jobs, particularly to young people. At 16, she made a 10-cent commission on every pair of panty hose she sold to cocktail waitresses at Parklane Hosiery.

“It was the place to be, because there was no place else to go,” said Goloff, whose husband, Michael, worked at Dell’s Ice Cream Parlor in the mall.

The success of the mall gave rise in 1972 to the 100,000-square-foot Cardiff Shopping Center (now Cardiff Power Center) directly across the pike, which brought in large department and grocery stores such as Bradlees, Pathmark and the Rickel Home Center, a precursor of sorts to Home Depot. Pathmark, which closed last year, was the last of those original anchors to leave the plaza.

The 1980s brought an economic recession and, in 1987, the opening of the Hamilton Mall. The new competition prompted a major renovation, but the Shore Mall’s improvements — including a fountain, interior landscaping and skylights — didn’t prevent tenants from shifting their operations west to Hamilton Township. Both J.C. Penney and Sears relocated to the new mall, and many smaller stores followed.

Peter Miller, Egg Harbor Township’s administrator since 1989, said there was a sense that the Hamilton Mall and Wrangleboro Consumer Square, which followed in 1996, cherry-picked the Shore Mall’s best tenants to fill their new storefronts.

“Our marketplace didn’t grow” to accommodate the new retail space, Miller said. “All we did was move the stores westwardly.”

Accessibility has been a major problem for businesses near the increasingly congested intersection of the Black Horse Pike and Tilton Road. The problem worsened as the township’s population grew from 25,000 in 1990 to 43,000 in 2010. Motorists today cannot make left turns onto the pike from either the Shore Mall or the Cardiff Power Center.

Representatives of Cedar Realty Trust, of Port Washington, N.Y., which bought the mall in 2006 for $36.5 million, did not respond to requests for comment, but they did address the issue during a November Planning Board meeting.

Thomas Richey, the company’s president of development and construction, said the accessibility problem “prevents us from getting quality anchors.”

“We could use state and federal dollars to affect a complete change in access of the property,” he said.

Miller said the key problem is access.

“You go to places you’re more comfortable with,” he said. “The nature of drivers and consumers is, they don’t really want to think when they do things. They just want to instinctively go.”

As early as 1983, The Press of Atlantic City reported on calls from local officials to open ramps to the Garden State Parkway that could ease congestion around the mall. Those plans have long been discussed, but little progress has been made.

Miller said the township is in preliminary discussion with the New Jersey Turkpike Authority and the state Department of Transportation, which oversee the parkway and the pike, respectively, to improve access to the two commercial properties.

Discussions have centered on moving the current signal near Carrabba’s Italian Grill west to West Jersey Avenue and creating a direct connector between the parkway and a township-owned parcel behind the Shore Mall. But, Miller said, it will take time for all of the parties, including the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization, to sign off on any plans.

“It’s quite possible it’ll be 12 or 15 months from now that we’ll know everyone’s position,” he said. “(Then) the next step is to talk to the (owners of the) two commercial properties to find out what their financial contributions would be, since they’re the direct beneficiaries of it.”

Beyond the effects of accessibility and outside competition, both commercial centers have faced financial troubles.

Cedar Realty Trust hasn’t released financial information about the Shore Mall in its annual reports or federal Securities and Exchange Commission filings, but Cardiff Center LLC has faced a construction lien and tax sale related to the Cardiff Power Center. Pagano Development Co. Inc., a firm associated with Cardiff Center LLC, filed for bankruptcy in 2011. The court ultimately dismissed the case. Messages left for the owners of the Cardiff Power Center were not returned.

While the impact of the Shore Mall’s demolition project is difficult to calculate, Miller said that even if its $29 million tax assessment is reduced by one-third, it won’t be a serious strain on other taxpayers. As a whole, the township is assessed at about $2.5 billion.

“Yes, it has an impact, but people’s taxes won’t go up $100 a year for that kind of loss,” he said.

Similarly, Miller said, the Cardiff Power Center reduced its assessment — currently at $6.5 million, most of which is tied to land value — by $300,000 through a recent tax appeal due to loss of tenants. That, too, had a negligable impact.

“It’s like a speck of sand on the beach,” he said.

Miller said he hopes the Shore Mall can recover, because many of its tenants do steady business. In recent years, Cedar Realty Trust has attracted several restaurants and a bank to its outparcels.

As the mall’s economic fortunes fell, so did the atmosphere.

Sheridan said the mall seemed to suffer a gradual deterioration that it never managed to recover from, regardless of who owned it.

“Once it was sold to the new company, nothing changed,” she said. “They didn’t do anything to attract new people. I guess their hopes went down the sliding board.”

Goloff said she misses the “personal touch” of many of the old Shore Mall stores, many of which were family-owned.

The whole area needs the attention of owners who really care about their properties and can bring in stores people want to shop at, she said.

“The area doesn’t need any more dollar stores,” she said.

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