VINELAND – Customers got only half of their expected shopping experience when Landis MarketPlace opened here on May 5, 2011.

Ballyhooed as one of the major attractions for the revitalization of the downtown shopping district, only the lower level with its mostly Amish vendors selling meats, cheeses, produce and baked goods was ready for customers.

The upper level opened several weeks later with fewer than the 15 vendors operators expected. A year-and-a-half later, those operators are still struggling to find the best business fit for the upper level.

Most of the upper level’s original vendors are gone, giving up after reportedly being disappointed by the number of customers lured to that part of the market. A managerial change in January resulted in promises that the upper level would be filled by the end of the year, but there is no indication that will happen.

Landis MarketPlace operators did not respond to requests from The Press of Atlantic City for comment.

Some of the upper-level vendors who have left Landis MarketPlace either declined comment or could not be reached for comment.

Lurie Luciano operated Luciano’s Fresh Market, and New Orleans-style eatery that was the first vendor to sign up for an upper level spot. Luciano declined comment, saying she has not yet completed the terms of her exit from Landis MarketPlace.

“I can tell you that it was heartbreaking to pack up my restaurant,” said Luciano, a Vineland High School graduate. “I have never worked so hard in my life and I was so very proud of the product we put out of that little kitchen. It was truly exceptional.”

Landis MarketPlace was built in the site of the old J.J. Newbery Department store in the 600 block of Landis Avenue with the aid of about $5 million in Urban Enterprise Zone funds. Those funds are generated by state sales tax revenues in areas designated as a UEZ.

City officials said that filling the second level is crucial to the success of Landis MarketPlace.

“They are probably about break even right now,” City Economic Development Director Sandra Forosisky said.

Local officials and Landis MarketPlace operators expected a “three-year ramp up” period before they could accurately determine the success of the operation, she said.

Landis MarketPlace operators started electronically counting customers in February. They said the figures show a per-day customer count of about 1,600, about 400 more customers than they expected.

Landis MarketPlace operators continue to try and find the right mix of vendors for the upper level, Forosisky said. She called the endeavor a “fluid process.”

Most recently, Landis MarketPlace operators announced three new vendors – Carini Custard, Lorie Ann Jewelry and A Novel Idea, Chapter 2, which is a used book store – opened on the upper level.

Along with those vendors are 8 other new upper-level merchants. Those vendors will only have limited hours, and the times vary by merchant. One of the vendors – a florist – will only be open through Christmas Eve.

Forosisky said the book store could be a big draw. Customer surveys show place that kind of business at the top of the list of vendors customers want at Landis MarketPlace, she said.

Book store operator Linda Eisenberg and Debbi Carini, who runs Carini Custard, both said they think Landis MarketPlace operators are finally finding the right vendors for the upper level.

Eisenberg opened the book store on Oct. 31, moving operations to Landis MarketPlace from her quarters in Bridgeton. Eisenberg said she has thus far been happy with business.

“A lot of people are coming,” she said. “I already have regulars.”

Eisenberg said business is most brisk on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the days vendors on the lower level are open. She said she would like to find a way to increase business on Wednesdays.

“I think we have a lot to offer,” she said.

Carini said she thinks her Landis MarketPlace venture will draw customers from her family’s other successful business, Five Points Custard in Buena, Atlantic County. She said Carini Custard may also benefit from the fact that there are few places that sell ice cream year-round in the region.

Carini said she spent about two months getting Carini Custard ready for its grand opening on Nov. 16. She said she’s optimistic because many Landis MarketPlace customers kept asking when Carini Custard was opening.

Forosisky said other changes at Landis MarketPlace could also benefit the upper level. One possibility involves Landis MarketPlace operators moving the popular Sunny Side Luncheonette from the facility’s lower level to the upper level, she said.

“The bottom line is we want to give the mix that people want to see,” Forosisky said.

While Luciano has left Landis MarketPlace, she said returning to the city with another eatery remains a possibility.

“All of my equipment is in storage in New Jersey,” said Luciano, who is now in New Orleans. “I didn’t sell anything with the hope that I might be able to find a new location.

“I haven’t given up on my hometown.”

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