A sprawling weekly market combining crafts, live music, food trucks and a flea market is coming to the Atlantic City Race Course parking lot in May, following a 9-0 approval Thursday night by the Hamilton Township Planning Board.

The Mercato Market expects to attract between 2,500 and 5,000 people a day for its markets, according to its business plan, set up over 10.4 acres around the grassy plaza between the racetrack building and parking lot.

These markets would include space for as many as 650 vendors and operate on weekends from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., May through December. Vendors would be permitted to arrive at 6 a.m., and Business Operations Manager Dirk DaCosta said he expected alcohol would be served under the racetrack’s license.

The goal, DaCosta said, is a new kind of flea market. The British native said he was inspired by the long-running weekly markets in the Camden Town part of London, which offer a wide variety of clothes, food and other goods. It is a major tourist attraction.

He said he recently visited with his partner, Dina Guzzardo, and said “that market was just an amazing experience that stuck with both of us.”

Guzzardo is responsible for the special events at the market. Some of the planned events, according to its website, mercatomarket.com, include a May 3-4 carnival and fireworks display, June 7-8 battle of the bands, and a July 26-27 “biker’s brigade.”

“I guess one of the terms I would use is an outdoor market reinvented,” DaCosta said. “It’s going to be a pretty neat experience for shoppers and venders alike.”

The proposal comes as township and race course officials have cast about for uses for the massive race course structure and grounds, which take up more than 250 acres near the Atlantic City Expressway and Black Horse Pike in Mays Landing.

It was originally built in 1946 for racing, holding 35,000 patrons, but held its last full racing season in 1996. This year’s season runs April 24-30, said Michael Gibbons, the track’s race book manager overseeing special events.

With little use, some structures on the grounds are visibly decaying, and the massive grandstand sees few visitors beyond simulcasting bettors. The grounds are used for occasional large events.

Gibbons said a circus uses the parking lot every August, a Harley-Davidson festival was held there last summer, and heavy equipment auctions, attracting an international audience, take place every three months. When market organizers approached the track last year, Gibbons said the proposal seemed like a good fit.

DaCosta said about two years of planning went into the project. The Galloway Township resident said a number of towns turned them down, including Galloway; Gloucester Township, Camden County; and Washington Township, Gloucester County.

“We then hit upon the racetrack, and it was just a marriage made in heaven.” DaCosta said.

David Wigglesworth, chairman of the Hamilton Township Planning Board, said the unanimous vote came after a two-hour hearing with no opposition. He complimented the developers as filing a very complete application, and said he liked the organizer’s attention paid to public safety and fire department concerns. He also said organizers worked with township planning professionals.

Contact Derek Harper:

609-272-7046

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