ABSECON - The sound of a man rapping to his iPod carried across a two-block row of shops that is the main drag of downtown Absecon. Nothing else stirred on New Jersey Avenue as he strode past sunset-illuminated store windows, some revealing empty space.
The stretch was not really quiet, however. It never is, thanks to six lanes of traffic charging along the nearby White Horse Pike.
The highway runs nearly parallel to New Jersey Avenue, with no more than a few blocks between them until they intersect at Shore Road. Two bars have sat at that intersection for decades, a longevity that contrasts with the vacancies greeting westbound drivers passing New Jersey Avenue on their way home from the bay, the motels and, ultimately, Atlantic City.
Civic activity has shifted west of the main downtown district and takes up several properties over as many miles, rather than the few, condensed sites that once hosted public operations and community activities.
People patronized the strip because they were already there. It is going to take something new and different to pull them back, but also more foot traffic to attract the high-end businesses City Planner Rob Reid and others envision.
Some spaces are waiting, such as the half-built condo complex that was supposed to save downtown but is now bankrupt. Others boast stable and promising enterprises, such as the framing and variety store in business since the mid-1980s. Then there's the month-old British Connection, hawking tea, preserves and other goods from the U.K., facing the perpetually busy Olivia's barbershop and Petals, a florist hoping to succeed where its predecessor failed.
City planner officials have debated for at least a decade how best to use the nearby train station that 150 years ago spawned a city from a fishing village to revitalize today's downtown. They plan to invest more than $1.5 million in the area to encourage new businesses to occupy it.
New Avenue's struggle mirrors that of main streets nationwide: downtowns that struggled and disappeared, re-invented themselves or await their fates as the recession multiplies the competition from chains, franchises and big-box companies; car-induced and tech-enhanced community detachment; and other incarnations of modernization.
"The place has a lot of potential - we're just in bad economic times," Reid said recently.
Pretty much as dire, in fact, as the Great Depression that nearly suffocated the city decades ago, according to 80-year-old Lee Howlett, whose family's hardware store survived those tough times thanks in part to a community cohesiveness that has since diminished.
Howlett and his wife, Margie, donated the adjacent warehouse to the city when they sold the business in 1996. It took years for the Absecon Historical Society to raise enough money to restore the building. Ultimately, the society christened its headquarters in honor of the donor family. Their portraits flank the entry.
The story so far
Howlett Hall - the headquarters of the Absecon Historical Society named for the family who donated the building - faces empty stores that formerly housed land title, real estate and mortgage and insurance companies, all casualties of an exponential, two-decade drain on foot traffic.
First, retail and higher-density residential development took over farmland in Galloway Township, giving residents a more convenient way to shop than traveling to New Jersey Avenue as before. But stores there survived thanks to their proximity to Absecon's City Hall, firehouse and post office.
That changed during the 1980s, when the post office closed, City Hall moved to the current complex away from downtown at 500 S. Mill Road and the fire department also found a new home at New Jersey Avenue and New Road, away from the main strip. They were replaced by apartments and a public library, which drew fewer people. Fewer still chose to shop along the stretch as big-box stores burgeoned in Galloway and Hamilton townships.
Then, the Absecon Public School District sold the former H. Ashton Marsh School to Jim Stewart. The developer envisioned building a senior-citizen complex that would stimulate the diminished downtown, including a retail complex he is still planning for Memorial Field. The site has not actually hosted a baseball game since sports teams shifted a decade ago to Pitney Park, where less traffic and more space between the road and fields make for safer conditions.
When the children moved, so went the post-game, post-dance, after-school crowds that patronized businesses such as Joe and John's Pizza and Restaurant, according to Pat Mancuso, who has run the restaurant with her husband Andrew for more than three decades.
Arturo Chilelli worked for Joe and John's for 15 years before leaving to open his own store, Calabria's Pizza & Italian Grill, last June. He picked a spot on the western end of New Jersey Avenue, apart from the downtown business district, but close to the city's transplanted hub. "I'm between Wawa and ShopRite, I'm right across from City Hall," Chilelli said. "I think it's a place with more visibility than any other on New Jersey Avenue."
A month shy of the eatery's one-year anniversary, he said he is certain he has more customer traffic now than he did when he worked in the middle of New Jersey Avenue.
Local officials and business owners want to generate more of that in the city's downtown, but their best, most immediate hopes have been dashed, at least for now: The developer of the Pinnacle age-restricted development originally planned by Stewart declared bankruptcy halfway through building.
Casual inquiries might become formal proposals faster in a healthier economy and on busier sidewalks.
Local officials and businesspeople were banking on the Pinnacle, an 85-unit, age-restricted condominium complex in Absecon, to put people on New Jersey Avenue.
Instead, the developer Mark Bergman filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy last month, halfway through building the complex, which is unrelated to the abandoned casino project of the same name in Atlantic City.
It likely will remain half-built for at least a year. That's how long it will take to complete bankruptcy proceedings and a potential sale or foreclosure of the site, according to Jim Stewart, who bought the site, drafted plans and secured approvals before selling it to Bergman. Bergman filed two Chapter 7 claims seeking nearly $40 million total in business and personal debt relief.
A sign in a second-floor window of the former firehouse across the street still targets potential buyers of the condos, which start at $174,900.
The delay means the city will have to wait even longer to find out whether the complex is, in fact, the key to reviving the downtown area.
"That was the whole idea - to have a captive audience, that people (would) not have to own a car," planner Rob Reid said "We're trying to put life back on the street - those 85 units would put life there."
With the Pinnacle in limbo, the key to generating activity is leveraging the nearby train stop that transformed a ship-building village into an 8,000-person city, according to Reid.
"The only thing that's going to save New Jersey Avenue is the train," Reid said.
The state and city have planned projects, some starting as soon as this summer, to improve the safety and aesthetics of the street linking New Jersey Avenue to the nearby New Jersey Transit rail stop.
Which comes first - residents or stores?
Banking on residential support to sustain economic activity in a downtown area depends on what types of businesses a city wants to attract, according to Luis Brunstein, assistant professor of economics at Rowan University.
"It's difficult to accurately forecast," Brustein said.
Although it seems counterintuitive, very expensive luxury stores might be the best bet because the typical clientele continues to spend, even in a recession, he said.
To attract such stores, the city might first need to attract a bigger popoulation of shoppers to the stretch, according to Reid.
For now, established specialty shops such as Hometown Variety and Framing and the British Connection - which had accumulated a devoted clientele during its several years in Smithville - epitomize what Reid wants to see on New Jersey Avenue's main strip.
"We can't compete with big box stores. You have to have specialty stores. You can't sell socks on New Jersey Avenue anymore," Reid said.
A baker has approached the owners of the building that was the office of longtime city tax collector Ida Smith until her retirement and death last year. If it opens, the spot could capitalize on the popularity of the previous pastry place that was replaced by the heavily patronized Olivia's.
An art gallery and wireless communications store also have been floated as fillers for the vacant spaces that gape at White Horse Pike traffic coming from Atlantic City, Reid said.
Regardless of prices or wares, the most imporant factor is that the population - in this case, residents of the Pinnacle and any standalone or small-cluster rentals - would have enough money and predeveloped consumption habits to sustain New Jersey Avenue, according to Brunstein.
"If it's not what they want, they'll shop elsewhere. My point is that just because you open up a place and develop it, people might not come," Brunstein said.
The city is not - and likely will not - invest public money in business development in the form of grants, tax breaks or other incentives, according to city Administrator Terry Dolan.
Dolan said his experience has showed him that such government involvement simply does not work.
What might: creating opportunities. The city did that in 2007 when it created the Train Station Overlay District, which changed local zoning laws to allow residential uses in areas formerly zoned strictly for commercial properties. Essentially, that allows businesses to renovate space for renters that would populate New Jersey Avenue with more permanent potential consumers.
The nearby New Jersey Transit rail stop also could be key to getting bodies on the downtown strip. To entice travelers, the city will improve the safety and aesthetics of the street between downtown and the station. Reid and others also hope to construct a pedestrian bridge, but that plan is far less concrete; the pedestrian improvements already are partially funded, with the remainder pending grant approvals.
Brunstein said that, amid the recession, investment of any kind must be doubly examined to ensure it is, in fact, the best use of the money.
According to a recent study by consulting firm Giffels-Webster Engineers, it is wisest to sink economic development money into infrastructure projects, thanks to incentives under the federal stimulus program.
E-mail Emily Previti: