For decades, Little Egg Harbor Township officials and business owners watched wistfully as commercial development exploded in neighboring Stafford, hoping for a ripple effect to spread to their community.
But it never came.
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
A decade of writing “hundreds” of letters attempting to entice a chain business was fruitless, said Deb Christiansen, president of the Little Harbor Economic Development Commission and the local Economic Growth Group.
Each time, the response was the same.
“I just don’t think we were big enough for those businesses and for some reason the businesses don’t think they’ll make money here,” Christiansen said.
The companies cited the township’s demographics, including its large senior citizen population --there are six senior communities and 43 percent of the township's 20,065 residents are above 65--as a major factor.
But the town is changing and has attracted a younger demographic as the senior citizen population is dwindling, many chased from their homes by Hurricane Sandy, according to Christiansen.
Those changes have helped attract a Super Walmart, set to break ground later this spring on Route 9 , where the township is in the midst of creating a commercial corridor.
The township also has a liquor license for sale and they are hoping to attract a more upscale restaurant to the region.
Also, four acres are also being cleared for a Tractor Supply that should be open by September, said Little Egg Harbor Township Mayor Arthur Midgley.
Midgley said he hopes the Walmart will reverse a trend of residents leaving the township to do their shopping in Manahawkin.
It’s been a long wait.
“I’ve lived here since 1973 and I always thought that Route 539 was going to develop into a commercial zone like Lacey Road in Forked River but there were problems with getting the water out there and everything approved,” Midgley said.
In 2002, Little Egg Harbor’s plans to develop the Route 539 corridor, which connects to Exit 58 Garden State Parkway interchange, included a hotel, convention center, golf course and homes. But those plans never completely came to fruition.
The landscape along Route 539 remains rural and peppered with development including a Wawa store, Shooters Sporting Center and Four Seasons at Sea Oaks senior development.
Christiansen sees hope in the latest developments.
Like Stafford Township’s Parkway interchange Exit 63, Little Egg will benefit from the parkway interchange at Exit 58 that feeds onto Route 539.
“We will be able to pull from the northern part of Atlantic County too, places like Galloway, Port Republic and Absecon,” Christiansen said.
The township has watched for years as Stafford developed its commercial zone, sometimes to the regret of residents who lament the traffic on Route 72.
But Christiansen sees it differently
“I am totally jealous to see how packed the shopping center parking lots are on a Saturday night in Manahawkin. I would love to have that in our township,” said Christiansen.
She was referring to Stafford’s five shopping centers along Route 72, its big box stores like Costco, BJ’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, Target, Kmart, Shoprite and Superfresh, and its specialty stories: TJ Maxx, Kohl’s, Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Ulta, Pier One Imports, AC Moore, Michael’s, Staples and Bed Bath and Beyond.
By comparison, Little Egg’s current commercial highlights are an Acme Market, a Rite-Aid Store, Wawa, several other convenience stores, McDonald’s and a handful of pizza shops.
That will change with a new Walmart, which she believes will keep residents in town.
“Walmart will be the anchor. I’m not giving up on this little town—it’s a diamond in the rough,” she said.
Midgley, however, cautioned that change would be gradual, a good thing, he said.
“We’re a little bit more rural of a community. We were a fishing port and there are still remnants of that here and we have a lot of marinas. I don’t want to have a complete change from that.”