Within two decades of incorporating at the start of the 20th century, Absecon had a healthy and growing downtown business district on New Jersey Avenue.

A decade later in 1932, though, the state changed the character of the town forever by putting a major highway - the White Horse Pike - through Absecon just a short block from its main street.

Ever since, the downtown has had an uneasy relationship with the highway, which made it easier to get to Absecon but became the city's main commercial strip. A stone's throw from the pike, New Jersey Avenue has kept its main-street feel.

Jenny Laltrella, of Egg Harbor Township, often visits the downtown during her lunch break from work.

"All the businesses, you come in there a few times and they know you. They know what you like, they know what you eat and what you drink," Laltrella said. "It's a homey hometown feel. You get personalized attention here and everything you need in just a few blocks."

Ashley Haggerty, of Absecon, said she and her neighbors often walk to the downtown and patronize the shops. Many of the residents in the small city said supporting the downtown is a part of community pride.

"You want to give back to the community and support it, so I try to support the local businesses as much as I can," she said.

Stan Weiner, owner of Hometown Variety and Custom Framing, said the downtown relies on its local and loyal customer base.

"Our downtown is very local and very diverse," he said. "People come in here for a lot of miscellaneous things."

Efforts to increase patronage of the main-street district became more serious in the early 1990s, when the level of Atlantic City casino traffic prompted plans to widen and divide the White Horse Pike. The results have been mixed at best.

The city encouraged commercial growth along the highway, also known as Route 30, leading to the development of strip malls and businesses there.

At the same time, the nonprofit Absecon Business and Commercial Development Corp. was created to support the main-street district.

In 1995, the organization set a goal of attracting an anchor store to the downtown district, a famous-name specialty retailer that would draw area shoppers while keeping the district's "small-town atmosphere."

That plan didn't succeed, and another was floated in 1997. City Council proposed extending Pitney Road, a regional through-street, to New Jersey Avenue as a way to steer more shoppers there.

That plan also went nowhere, but in 1998 the Absecon Business and Commercial Development Corp. started an effort that bore some fruit: creating a narrow 150-foot long plaza at the foot of New Jersey Avenue with $20,000 from the city.

The organization raised an additional $33,000 for the plaza and furnished it with an antique-replica clock.

A few years later, when work began on widening the pike and putting a divider down the middle, one fear of some main-street merchants was realized when parking spaces they had used disappeared in the project.

The nonprofit next pinned its hopes for the downtown on a senior citizen housing project on New Jersey Avenue, which would encourage professional offices to locate nearby.

The development of the Pinnacle Club stalled, though, in the real estate downturn, and Parke Bank took ownership of the failed complex in 2010.

That same year, Margate-based Boardwalk Design & Development Inc. announced plans to take over the project, invest $12 million and complete it as Absecon Gardens - a 74-unit, high-end residential complex in the middle of the district.

To make the plan work, Boardwalk Design got the seniors-only designation removed by the city's Planning Board in May 2011. That prompted a lawsuit that has stalled the development since.

Rich Krents, owner of Artistic Photo Shop in Absecon, across the street from Absecon Gardens, said its opening would be a boon to the district.

"I think it would be key to get more development and more businesses into the downtown," he said. "I think the downtown is sitting dormant until the issues are cleared up."

Rob Reid, the current president of the Absecon Business and Commercial Development Corp., said the New Jersey Avenue assortment of eateries, dress shops, hair and nail salons, a bank and a British tea shop has evolved by itself.

He said that at 33 acres, the district is much smaller than most commercial centers. The location has about 50 business licenses, about a third of all such properties in the city, and a few vacancies.

City Administrator Terry Dolan said the city had attempted in recent years to recruit businesses by placing advertisements in trade magazines and erecting signs on the White Horse Pike, but the moves were costly and largely unsuccessful.

In 2011, the city began a new streetscaping project with $700,000 of grant money to add new walkways, landscaping and street furniture to make the downtown more attractive. The project also connected the train station to New Jersey Avenue through a walkway.

New businesses have given the street a vote of confidence the past couple of years by relocating there.

Mary Santos moved Serenity Boutique from Smithville in Galloway Township to New Jersey Avenue in November 2011.

"When I saw this street here, I fell in love with it," Santos said. "It looks like a little SoHo, like the Village (in New York City). This spot here is so beautiful."

Charlie Fonte, of Somers Point, brought his Charlie's Shoe Repair to the city in November after 40 years in Pleasantville and said it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

He discovered most of his clients were from Absecon anyway, and he quickly realized how the small town supports its business district.

Shortly after opening, Fonte said, other owners dropped by to say hello and residents popped in to see how the store was doing.

"People just came in and welcomed me," he said. "This is a great neighborhood. You can do everything here on New Jersey Avenue. It's one-stop shopping."

Mayor John Armstrong said the city is starting to develop some new ideas for the district to attract more people and businesses.

One plan would be to develop the land near Absecon Creek and add a small park with a boardwalk so kayakers and small boats could stop there and patronize the businesses on their trip.

Other ideas include a cultural center, hosting more events on New Jersey Avenue and encouraging people to take more day trips from the train station and stop at the eateries on their way home.

"We're trying to generate some enthusiasm and encourage other businesses to come," he said. "It takes time to remake a downtown. We have to be in it for the long haul."

Business Editor Kevin Post contributed to this report.

Contact Joel Landau:


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Places to go

The Absecon Historical Society's Howlett Hall, which has a museum of the city's history, at 100 New Jersey Ave. It is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

The British Connection offers an assortment of British products, including food and beverages, beauty supplies, clothing and collectible teapots. 130 New Jersey Ave.

What's special

First National Bank of Absecon, 106 New Jersey Ave. The bank opened in 1916 and is the oldest existing business in the city.

A mural is currently being painted by local artist April Elias to show Absecon in 1904 when the city was founded. The mural can be seen near the parking lot facing the White Horse Pike.

The Absecon train station is located directly across the White Horse Pike from the district and offers transportation to Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

Where to park

Parking is free on the street, and the city has a parking lot in the middle of the New Jersey Avenue business district.

Where to eat

Black Cat Bar & Grill, Friendly Deli, Joe and John's Pizzeria, Phoenix Diner, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Mariachi's Mexican Restaurant, Skelly's Hi-Point Pub, DJ's Shopping Outlet

Services in the district

Absecon Public Library, 305 New Jersey Ave.

Absecon Fire Department, Route 9 and New Jersey Avenue