EGG HARBOR CITY - More than a dozen people from all walks of life were talking about the big questions in life - faith and doubt in religion - as they sipped drinks and had dinner at the Avenue Cafe on Philadelphia Avenue last month.
The "Taproom Theology" group, made up of congregants of various churches as well as nonchurchgoers, moves around town to different restaurants and bars each week, said its leader, the Rev. Jeanie Manson of St. John's United Church of Christ in Egg Harbor City.
At this meeting they were trying the Avenue Cafe, which under new management is highlighting craft beers made within 200 miles of Egg Harbor, and American foods made with local produce and meats, said co-managers Paul Erbacher, 38, and Anthony Della Vecchia, 24.
"The city has a lot of history and we're hoping it does catch on, and that people will support the local spots," Erbacher said.
Della Vecchia, whose family ran the Liberty Beer Garden for years - now Luby's - on Arago Street, attended the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College, he said.
He and Erbacher hope beers from microbreweries such as Climax Brewing Co. out of Roselle Park, Union County, and the Tuckahoe Brewing Co. in Ocean View, Dennis Township, will bring more folks to town.
Across the street Liz Champion, of Port Republic, and her friend Gena Conley, of the South Egg Harbor section of Galloway Township, were eating cupcakes at a table outside of Simply Sweet, the bakery famous for winning Food Network's baking competition, "Cupcake Wars."
"I'm not a huge fan of cupcakes, but these are good," said Champion.
Located next to the Atlantic County Library's Egg Harbor City branch, Conley said she passes it all the time on her way to get books, and thought of it right away as a good meeting spot.
Philadelphia Avenue is the main street in town, and it is home to several bars and restaurants, a liquor store, several convenience stores and delis, the library and post office, and a variety of professional offices and shops. The first two blocks got a major facelift a few years ago, with new sidewalks, curbing, lighting, ginko trees and street paving.
Some of the more unusual stores include the Tap It Homebrew Supply Shop in the old Egg Harbor City Farmers Market building; the children's and maternity consignment shop So Precious in His Sight; the used clothing store Sensational Seconds; and the fishing supply store Captain Howard's Bait and Tackle Shop.
It is a practical downtown, with two laundromats, several barber shops and hair salons, an old-fashioned hardware store, and just about every medical, legal and financial service a person could need.
Attorney and Greater Egg Harbor City Chamber of Commerce President Jim Schroeder estimated downtown is about 70 percent occupied, and said the chamber is focused on beautifying downtown and bringing in new businesses.
"I grew up in Port Republic, my family had a farm in Mullica Township, so Egg Harbor City was where I went to town," said Schroeder, 41, whose law office is in Egg Harbor City. He knows all the best places to eat, he said, including Jonny Boy's Subs in the 200 block, which he calls "the best kept secret in the area."
He said the chamber had become less active, then took a hiatus for a year before starting up again about two years ago and recruiting him to lead it. The group started with a Christmas tree lighting event, and has expanded to run a series of events, including the successful Taste of the Town in April. Last month the chamber installed "Shop Local" banners on streetlights in town.
Schroeder has learned a lot from the people who have led a renaissance in downtown Hammonton, where he lives, he said.
"Hammonton has been at it for 20 years," he said of the MainStreet Hammonton group that has brought in new business, developed an arts district, run cooperative marketing campaigns and events, and gotten funding for new signage and storefronts for businesses. "That helps me take a longer-lens view of things."
He sees Egg Harbor's strength in attracting niche businesses and helping businesses get started in smaller, more affordable spaces before expanding as they succeed. That has been the experience of Tap It and So Precious in His Sight, he said.
Philadelphia Avenue also is getting a 100-unit, four-story senior citizens' apartment building in the next year at the site of the former Fanny D. Rittenberg Middle School, in the 500 block. Its developer, Conifer Realty, heard recently that it will get the state funding needed to build the affordable housing complex.
Officials have been working to bring the senior housing to town, with the idea that seniors would then shop downtown and help increase foot traffic there.
But one prominent property has remained vacant for six years: the former site of an Eckerd Drug Store at the intersection of the White Horse Pike and Philadelphia Avenue. When Rite Aide bought the Eckerd chain in 2007, it closed the location and kept its stand-alone store a couple of blocks east on the pike.
After weeks of waiting for a response to questions about Rite Aid's plans for the site, which it still controls, spokesperson Ashley Flower said the chain is marketing it. But she would not answer further questions about why there is no "for rent" sign visible, or how many potential renters have been able to look at the property.
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