Vineland eatery
Jill McClennen, owner of The Sweet Life bakery on Landis Avenue in Vineland, says she would not have been able to open the shop without Urban Enterprise Zone funding. Staff photo by Michael Ein

VINELAND - City officials hope the CrepeMaker restaurant's opening Wednesday will be the first of many to come on Landis Avenue.

CrepeMaker is the latest sign of a downtown revitalization that the city hopes will transform "The Avenue" into a nighttime destination, not just a spot you pass by on your way to somewhere else. Two other restaurants are set to open on Landis Avenue by this summer. A year-round indoor farmers market will likely follow this fall or winter. A Mexican restaurant called Tortilleria Matamorros could open on the 400 block once the prospective owner closes on a deal.

Nearly every one of the prospective businesses has had Urban Enterprise Zone funding available to finance 80 percent of acquisition costs and renovation costs up to $500,000, with loan forgiveness up to 40 percent.

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But with Gov. Chris Christie freezing UEZ accounts in February and proposing the state take sales-tax revenues that have been historically kept by the cities, future development here could be jeopardized.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, said that would be a huge setback for Cumberland County.

"Cumberland would really be in trouble," said Van Drew, who chairs the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, which held a hearing Monday on Christie's proposed changes to UEZs. "It wouldn't be a tiny step. It would be a huge step back. For us, this is literally economic life or death."

That impact would be particularly substantial on Landis Avenue, where the city government's "Restaurant Row" initiative is based almost entirely upon offering UEZ financing that is more attractive than private financing.

"The problem is, if the governor takes all the UEZ money like he proposes, it's going to really hurt the avenue," Vineland Mayor Robert Romano said.

The city owns several properties on Landis Avenue, and in recent weeks, Vineland Redevelopment Director Sandy Forosisky has heard from different people talking about opening an Argentinian steakhouse, a wine bar, an Irish pub, and a seafood and ale house in the downtown.

"I got a waiting list of people who want to do this," Forosisky said. "I just have to get them buildings. The economy concerns me though."

The current string of new restaurant openings stems largely from people with deep Vineland roots. Steve Wilson and Jill McClennen opened The Sweet Life downtown after leaving San Francisco for the Vineland area, where McClennen grew up. Lou Ferretti, who is opening Mori's restaurant at the Landis Theater, runs the restaurant at the nearby Centerton Country Club.

Obed and Marilyn Bermudez grew up in Vineland and still live there, which is part of the reason why they wanted to open CrepeMaker downtown.

"My wife and I are native Vinelanders," Obed Bermudez said. "Our whole family's here. We wanted to be part of changing downtown."

The next wave could be local, too, but equally attractive are outsiders who city leaders hope will build strong ties in the city, rather than merely manage from afar. That's allowing the city government to be selective about to whom it sells some city-owned properties, and that patience doesn't concern downtown boosters such as Main Street Vineland's executive director, Todd Noon, who likes that selectivity.

"When you have that much interest in such a small location, you can rest assured it's going to happen," Noon said.

Among the city-owned properties are a now-vacant Rite Aid pharmacy and a building at 623 Landis Ave., which the Vineland Development Corp. bought last year. The Time Out sports bar, where business evaporated after a murder outside the business, is in foreclosure proceedings with the city and about to lose its liquor license, Forosisky said. Potential replacements are already lining up.

"They were targeted properties," Forosisky said. "Like 623 is two doors down from the public market. We just didn't want another absentee landlord. We want someone invested in the community."

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