Downtown Hammonton has seen an influx of new restaurants, art and theater venues, a college instructional site and shops in the past five years.

Outsiders may think the area entered into economic overdrive in that time, a period of the worst economic decline since the Great Depression.

Insiders know better.

John Runfolo, executive director of the Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce, said the influx has really been a 30-year process.

“I came in five years ago, and you could already see the progress,” said Cassie Iacovelli, executive director of MainStreet Hammonton, the grass-roots group that just turned 20 years old. It has led the town in bringing business vacancy rates down from about 60 percent to 5 percent today, she said.

MainStreet runs Third Thursday evening events, during which shops and restaurants give special discounts, and musicians and artists entertain. It also recruits new businesses to town, helps them obtain grant money to renovate storefronts, and allows downtown businesses to work together on marketing and special events.

The Chamber of Commerce started one of the town’s biggest events 27 years ago: The Red, White and Blueberry Festival, which will be held June 30 this year and is expected to draw 15,000 participants.

Annata Wine Bar, which specializes in European-style tapas plates and offers 170 wines by the bottle or glass, came to town about five years ago, renovating what had been an old auto parts store on the town’s main drag of Bellevue Avenue. Annata arrived about a year after Casciano Coffee Bar & Sweetery two doors down.

“They had already set everything in motion. We felt a rebirth was going on and heard the arts district was coming,” said Matt Brunozzi, 31, a chef who owns Annata with his brother Philip, 35, and sister Jacqueline Brunozzi-Dolan, 34.

Soon after Annata arrived, the Eagle Theatre opened on Vine Street, bringing live theater to town. The Noyes Museum of Art opened its first gallery in town on South Second Street.

By 2012, there were several Mexican restaurants and food trucks downtown, and the Philadelphia Inquirer did a front-page story on the town as a Mexican food paradise. In the past year a coalition of arts groups opened the Hammonton Artists Studios, and Richard Stockton College of New Jersey opened an instructional site.

None of it could have happened without the work, vision and tenacity of the early advocates for downtown revitalization, such as optometrist Leonard Streitfeld, now in his late 80s, Iacovelli said. They got started at a time when many thought the downtown could never recover, she said.

Business leaders from the Chamber of Commerce formed a nonprofit organization in December 1984 called the Hammonton Revitalization Corp., or HRC. The HRC conducted studies and interviews, and worked with volunteers to plant trees along Bellevue Avenue, purchase new lighting fixtures and Christmas decorations, and make new loans available for remodeling shops, Iacovelli said.

“What I’ve been told is some of the corners had drug dealers and prostitutes,” said Iacovelli, a Hammonton resident for about five years. She said it was difficult for her to believe until she saw photos of how bad the downtown looked in the 1970s and ’80s.

Iacovelli said HRC leaders Lewis Farsetta, Angelo Arena, Rhonda Bianchini, Mitch Hitman, Jeff Howell, Ann Lewellen, John Mazzeo, PJ Pullia and Streitfeld applied for MainStreet Hammonton to join the state program, which is part of the national Main Street program. It officially became a member June 3, 1993, with paperwork signed by Mayor Charles Gazzara and HRC President Hitman.

The HRC got the idea to renovate the historic train station on South Egg Harbor Road. It was completed in 1996, and now houses MainStreet Hammonton and the Chamber of Commerce. Since 1993, close to $30 million of public and private investments has helped to rehabilitate downtown storefronts, sidewalks, landscaping and the overall look of the district, Iacovelli said.

To celebrate MainStreet Hammonton’s 20th anniversary, the group commissioned a logo funded by a grant from the Department of Community Affairs’ Main Street New Jersey program, and designed by Cindy Williams Design, of Berlin, Camden County. The logo will be used throughout the year on MainStreet Hammonton promotions, Iacovelli said.

“This was not a quick fix,” said Iacovelli. “The (national) Main Street program principles make it clear, it’s a methodical, progressive, ongoing process. It takes a lot of time, but after 20 years the results are very impressive.”

If you go

“Discover” — A Global Showcase,” Hammonton’s Third Thursday event 6 to 9 p.m. June 20, transforms shops, galleries and restaurants into countries from around the globe. Expect African rhythm drum music at the Hammonton Arts Center, an Eiffel Tower downtown and Greek-inspired cocktails at the Noyes Gallery. See or call MainStreet Hammonton at 609-567-9014.

MainStreet Hammonton 20th anniversary cake at the opening of the Downtown Market, 9 a.m. to noon June 22 at 209 Vine St. (in the parking lot across from the Eagle Theatre).

27th annual Red, White & Blueberry Festival, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 30 at the Hammonton High School grounds, Old Forks Road just off the White Horse Pike (Route 30). Admission, parking and jitney rides from remote areas are free. Features include live music, kiddie rides, arts and crafts, a classic car show, food and blueberry pie-eating contests. Call the Chamber of Commerce at 609-561-9080.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: