HAMMONTON — Hammonton joins Beaufort, S.C., and six other towns as semifinalists for this year’s Great American Main Street Award.
The award, from the National Main Street Center of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recognizes successful revitalization efforts. It is given to three towns for documented economic impact, small-business development, historic preservation, volunteer involvement, public/private cooperation and success over time.
“We’re in the top eight in the country,” said MainStreet Hammonton President Benjamin Ott, who runs the Edward Jones investment firm in town.
Ott said the application for the award required documentation of “all the things we’ve done, the organization, the history and progress we’ve made.”
The 20-year-old nonprofit MainStreet Hammonton, which started as the Hammonton Revitalization Corp., works to attract businesseses to downtown,and helps them succeed through cooperative marketing efforts and special events.
It also has been helping owners improve storefront facades. Since 2011, grants from New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co. have provided half of the cost of improvements.
Three finalists will be selected by the end of February, and all three will be recognized at the National Main Streets Conference in April in New Orleans, La.
Ott said only one town in New Jersey has ever been a finalist — Westfield, Bergen County, in 2004.
He credited Jim Donio, president of the Eagle Theatre, and Linda Cashan, owner of Casciano Coffee Bar and Sweetery, with leading the effort as volunteers for two decades.
“Our top priority 20 years ago was to make people aware there was a downtown, and to take pride in it,” Donio said. “This is the most recognition we have ever received. Just getting into the semifinals is an incredible achievement.”
Donio started as a volunteer when he was a high school senior, sweeping up leaves and trash during cleanups. He believes the cooperative development of the city’s arts district made the application a standout, because the Hammonton Arts Center, the Noyes Museum of Stockton College, the Eagle Theatre and Richard Stockton College of New Jersey all work so closely together.
While there is no monetary prize, being selected as a finalist can have a substantial economic impact.
“Other finalists from previous years have received incredible amounts of media attention,” resulting in more tourism and a boon to business, Donio said.
Cashan has been involved for 20 years, since long before she opened the coffee shop five years ago, Donio said. She currently chairs the Third Thursday and Farmers Market committees.
MainStreet Hammonton relies heavily on volunteers and ongoing support from many local businesses, Executive Director Cassie Iacovelli said.
Iacovelli, who has led the group as the only paid staff member for five years, spent 28 years in college administration. She was assistant dean of campus life at Rider University in Lawrenceville, Mercer County, before joining MainStreet Hammonton, she said.
She uses many of the same skills in the MainStreet job, she said.
“Instead of helping creating a college’s life, I’m helping create a town’s life. I worked with student leaders who were volunteers, and I work with volunteers here,” Iacovelli said.
The town has brought in about 40 new businesses since she started, Iacovelli said.
“We lose about eight a year, but we’re always replacing them with 12, 13 a year,” she said. “We’re always gaining.”
Last year was a little tougher, with 10 new businesses opening and 11 closing, but several new businesses, such as Yoga Nine on Bellevue Avenue, have opened or plan to open in the first quarter of this year.
Iacovelli grew up in Berlin, Camden County, and moved to Hammonton when her husband, John Iacovelli, became dean of enrollment at Richard Stockton College, she said.
In both jobs she needed a budget and a vision, to develop a sense of community. One big difference is staffing levels. At Rider, she had three secretaries and a professional staff of as many as 12 people working under her.
“Here, it’s just me and the volunteers,” she said.
She has had to learn to do her own typing and handle computers.
“My staff at Rider think it’s a riot,” she said.
The other semifinalists are Bastrop, Texas; Bedford, Pa.; Bristol, Tenn.; Charleston East End, W. Va.; Harrisonburg, Va.; and Rochester, Mich.
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: