Drive east along the White Horse Pike into Atlantic City and, eventually, you will see a large tattered white screen looming over the meadows.
A remnant of an old drive-in movie theater that once stood on the site, the bare outline of the screen can still be made out amid the dirt and weeds. Any trace of speaker stands has disappeared, and only a solitary pole with old light fixtures gives any hint as to what was once here.
The theater site is just one of many vacant and abandoned properties that dot the region, ranging from dilapidated eyesores to neglected but historic buildings. But as some slowly make way to development, such as a garment factory in Hammonton being turned into a college campus, other plans have been held up due to the economy or other reasons.
“Industry is leaving the area,” said real estate broker Alex Linsk, who handles the drive-in property. “And nobody knows what to do (with those properties). Nobody has any idea what to do.”
One such abandoned industrial property is the site of the old Wheaton Glassworks in Mays Landing, Hamilton Township, a property assessed at more than $1 million that has sat vacant for years.
“The original plan was to develop condos and a little bit of retail on the first floor,” said Hamilton Mayor Roger Silva. “Obviously, as the economy turned sour, they decided to hold that up. Meanwhile, several years back there was a fire there that destroyed quite a large portion of the property. The site became unsightly — paint peeling, broken windows, litter all over the parking lot.”
Now, after meeting with the site’s owner, Cotton Mill Associates, earlier this month, a plan is being developed to convert the property into residential units — “Rentals,” Silva said, “the way to go for places like this.”
“They’re going to pave the parking lot,” Silva said. “And hopefully, if the numbers are right, they can convert the building to apartments. It is a bit of an eyesore. People are tired of looking at it.”
In Galloway Township, the $12.6 million Lenox property on Tilton Road has sat vacant since the 400,000-square-foot ceramic plant closed in 2005. Deputy Mayor Tony Coppola said the township has been in contact with a group marketing the site on behalf of the owners, BTR Tilton.
“It’s an incredible property,” Coppola said. “There’s a railroad spur, a water tower, generators. There was an environmental issue, but that’s been rectified, and that piece has been subdivided out of that. There are tax abatements and financial incentives on the table for development. ... The difficulty with that property is that it’s just so massive.”
The Lenox plant, Coppola said, “employed a lot of people, and we’d love to have more industry similar to that. The trouble is that America has become more of a service-oriented economy as opposed to manufacturing. Especially light industry — it doesn’t impact the school system and it would bring ratables into the township.”
Another such parcel is the Delaratto property on Route 30 — site of an old nightclub that was “pretty happening back in the day” — a parcel assessed at more than $840,000 that Coppola said has recently drawn interest from “serious” developers.
“And if you’re talking about abandoned properties, there’s Kennedy’s property there at Route 30 and Pomona (Road),” he added. “That was a famous old bar that was there for 100 years.”
A developer for a “major convenience retailer” was interested in the site, but any development was delayed by the state road project that used the neighboring old Pomona Fire House — demolished just this past month — as a storage site.
“Now, we’ll be starting to see that get developed,” Coppola said.
Some old industrial sites are in places far too isolated for development, such as the early 20th century “fish factory” off of Tuckerton in Great Bay — now owned by the state.
“They had wanted to tear it down,” said Pete Stemmer, a trustee with the Tuckerton Historical Society, “But they don’t have the money. So it’s just sitting there.”
A similar situation has taken place at the much more accessible drive-in property in Absecon, a 14-acre parcel that City Administrator Terry Dolan said is still owned by the Frank Theatres company that owns several theaters regionally and nationwide — “and I have no idea what the family hopes to do with it,” Dolan said.
Linsk said the $450,000 property — blocked off behind a locked gate with a “No Trespassing” sign — is “probably the largest piece of developable ground on the island causeway. It’s very tough to get development rights there.”
There have been plans in the past, Linsk said, including a proposed 12-plex movie theater, “but obviously, money is an issue. ... Lots of people have lots of ideas, and nobody wants to give any money to do it. That’s the problem. The banks say they’ll give out money, but they’re not giving out money.”
Linsk is also working on proposals for another Frank property, the closed theater on Ventnor Avenue in Ventnor, including a possible Reading Terminal-esque marketplace or even an arcade/entertainment site — “But the problem is, you have four to five months of nothing, when nobody’s around.”
What Silva said about the Wheaton Glassworks project, it seems, can be applied to any of the old, empty sites that have yet to fulfill their potential: “If a ray of light made the numbers work? ... Then there’s still hope.”
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