Newly hired Richard Stockton College professors Matthew Bonnan and Jess Bonnan-White were looking for a house close to campus when they moved to South Jersey from Illinois in August.
They sought a friendly community with a walkable downtown as well as good schools, restaurants and shops. The couple also wanted easy access to big cities for research purposes, and a vibrant arts community.
Yet the one thing they absolutely had to have in their hometown, they said, was an independent coffee shop. Casciano Coffee Bar & Sweetery may be what tipped the balance in Hammonton’s favor, as they moved there with daughter Quinn, 7, and son Max, 4.
In short, what they wanted was something like a college town.
While no full college campus is located in Hammonton, in January a Stockton satellite center opened called Kramer Hall, just steps away from the town center and the NJ Transit train line from Atlantic City to Philadelphia. About 120 students are taking about a dozen classes there, but next fall the numbers of courses and students are expected to increase significantly.
As soon as Kramer Hall opened in Hammonton, Mayor Steve DiDonato and others began jokingly referring to Hammonton as “a college town.” But with its amenities — and the ties between the town and local colleges, such as Stockton in Galloway Township and Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing — Hammonton may be on its way to earning that moniker.
“My wife, Jess, was the first to come out here with her mom. She said, ‘We’ve got to move there. They’ve got a coffee shop, things for kids to do, the arts,’” Bonnan said.
The coffee shop is about more than a caffeinated drink, he said.
“You can go to someplace like that and talk about politics or intellectual subjects and not feel out of place,” said Bonnan, a biology professor whose specialty is studying dinosaur locomotion. His wife teaches sociology, anthropology and conflict studies, with a focus on peace and Palestinian research.
The attributes they were seeking are much the same that University of New Hampshire Professor Blake Gumprecht says are found in the best college towns in his book, “The American College Town.” Such towns “are alike in their youthful and comparatively diverse populations, their highly educated work forces, their relative absence of heavy industry, and the presence ... of cultural opportunities more typical of large cities,” Gumprecht wrote in his book.
They are also many of the attributes the American Institute for Economic Research, or AIER, says are part of the best college towns in America in its recent listing of the top 20 — with Ithaca, N.Y., at the top.
Amenities such as shops and restaurants such as the Annata Wine Bar are great, but there also have to be connections between people in the community and people on campus for synergy to take place. Hammonton has those connections.
The owner of Casciano — the coffee shop that hooked Bonnan and family — is Linda Cashan, who is married to Nick Cashan, a member of the board of Atlantic Cape’s foundation. Linda Cashan opened the coffee shop about five years ago, but for 20 years she has been involved as a volunteer with MainStreet Hammonton, the group leading downtown revitalization efforts. It recently had great success when Hammonton was one of eight towns in the nation nominated for the Great American Main Street Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The 2012 president of the Hammonton Arts Center board, Cortlandt Bellavance, is the former chairman of the Fine Arts Department at Atlantic Cape. While he doesn’t live in town, he spends much of his free time volunteering at the Arts Center, located on the town’s main street, Bellevue Avenue. The center provides arts education and programming for people of all ages, as well as gallery space, and is part of the arts district, which encompasses Bellevue Avenue and its side streets.
In the district there are also two Noyes Museum of Art of Stockton College galleries, the Hammonton Artist Studios and the Eagle Theatre, which puts on live performances. Atlantic Cape English professor Dave Murphy brings students to the Poetry Workshop series he puts on periodically at the Eagle. Stockton anthropology professor Laurie Greene opened her third Yoga Nine studio on Bellevue Avenue in the middle of the arts district earlier this year.
Also on the Arts Center board is Kelly McClay, of Mays Landing, the dean of Atlantic Cape’s Academy of Culinary Arts. She has gotten students involved in cooking for many events in Hammonton, including catering for the Artist of the Year celebration for writer Nelson Johnson, who wrote the book, “Boardwalk Empire,” and lives in town. McClay hopes the academy may one day have a teaching center in Hammonton to offer cooking classes to the general public.
Stockton’s connections are just as deep.
Director of Admissions John Iacovelli is married to Cassie Iacovelli, the executive director of MainStreet Hammonton. They moved to Hammonton five years ago from Newtown, Pa., after Cassie Iacovelli left her job as assistant dean for campus life at Rider University in Lawrenceville, Mercer County. For more than two years, John Iacovelli had been commuting from Newtown to Stockton.
She and her husband found Hammonton almost by mistake.
“I had gone to a funeral in Ocean City, and people gave me directions to go back to Rider that took me through the downtown,” she said. “It was a shock to me. There aren’t that many downtowns, especially close to Stockton.”
She drove around the neighborhoods, called her husband and said, “What about Hammonton? I hung up with him and called a Realtor from the car.”
A week after moving in, Cassie Iacovelli saw an ad for the MainStreet director and got the job. Now, she said, she uses some of the same skills she used to create a community at Rider for her work in Hammonton.
Some of Cassie Iacovelli’s previous contacts at Rider work at Atlantic Cape and Stockton, which has made it easy for her to work with both colleges.
Haley Baum, assistant director of student development at Stockton, was a student government leader at Rider when Cassie Iacovelli was there. The two have partnered to bring busloads of students to Hammonton for the holiday tree lighting and would like to do other events.
It would be great to get more students to town, agreed Stockton geology professor Michael Hozik, who has lived in Hammonton for 40 years, is the Planning Board chairman and has served on the Environmental Commission and MainStreet Hammonton board.
Hozik and his wife, Margaret Rea, went to college in New England and lived in classic college towns. Hozik went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and lived in Amherst, Mass. Rea went to Tufts and lived in Medford, Mass. After moving to Hammonton, Rea commuted for a time to a job at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, she said.
From his time in Amherst, Hozik knows a town needs students around all the time to really develop into the quintessential college town.
“Hammonton is certainly not there yet. I do think it’s possible. If Kramer Hall is the success I believe it will be, Stockton will expand its footprint,” Hozik said. “One day, (the college aspect) will become a large part of the community — both in terms of economic impact and connection with the community. It’s doing a lot to move in that direction.”
He said a recent “Hammonton Loves Stockton” Third Thursday celebration in town included discounts from stores and restaurants for students with Stockton ID cards and free Eagle Theatre tickets to see a Shakespeare event.
“Students turned up for a concert by Stockapella jazz choir,” Hozik said. “I saw several students at Casciano’s having coffee and at Rocco’s Town House for dinner. I recognized a lot of faces in the audience at Eagle Theatre, too.”
Transportation for students may be the key.
Jess Bonnan-White has already joined the MainStreet Hammonton board, and she hopes to see a free bus shuttle between the main Stockton campus and Kramer Hall. Currently, there is only a free shuttle to a the NJ Transit train station in Egg Harbor City, where students must pay to take a brief train ride to the next stop in Hammonton.
“I’m really excited about this downtown, with the college right in the middle of a good place to walk around, get coffee and places to eat,” she said, noting the many affordable Mexican and Spanish restaurants in town. “But that’s a concern I have: How are they going to do that? I really hope we find a way of providing a shuttle route to campus. More students will come if the (free) direct line is provided.”
Stockton’s Provost and Executive Vice President Harvey Kesselman put together a presentation about Hammonton as “The Next Great College Town” a couple of years ago, he said, before Kramer Hall was a reality. He’s also thinking of developing more ties to colleges to the west and north.
He recently met with leaders at Burlington County College about a partnership to bring its graduates to Stockton’s Kramer Hall to finish their four-year degrees.
“People forget Burlington County College is only about 20 to 25 minutes from Hammonton,” he said. “It’s one of the great advantages of being in Hammonton. It’s so close to so many places.”
For Stockton art and architecture professor Kate Ogden, who lives in Hammonton and teaches a graduate-level course at Kramer Hall, the key to becoming more of a college town is bringing more residents of the community to college events.
She was an undergraduate at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., and thinks of that as the model college town.
“In Gettysburg, the college provides a whole lot of the culture and entertainment for the town. There’s a music series, (and) people from the community come to concerts. There’s (also) a lecture series. I’m not sure we’re quite at that level,” Ogden said. “But maybe we’re a college satellite town, or a partial college town.”
Bonnan-White, who attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City, which is number four on the AIER list of great college towns, puts it another way:
“With Hammonton, the first thing that came to mind was, this could be a mini Iowa City. It has the potential to be like that, if (Kramer Hall) is really used by students,” Bonnan-White said. “It would be like having their college town, just 20 minutes away.”
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: