LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A ride on Route 9 through this southern Ocean County community reveals tree-lined scenery, tiny waterways and a housing development quaintly named Cranberry Creek.
Suddenly, around a bend in the road, the bucolic charm is interrupted by the incongruous sight of a large construction area crawling with excavators, bulldozers and dump trucks.
This section of Route 9 is being transformed into a commercial corridor anchored by a Super Wal-Mart store opening next year and the possibility of swaths of now-empty land attracting an array of other development.
Mayor Arthur Midgley said he is willing to consider new retail shops, restaurants, a movie theater and a bowling alley as the types of development that could fill in vacant pockets of land, but “nothing junky.”
Midgley acknowledged the challenges ahead of retaining the township’s bayfront character while also building up its commercial base to boost tax ratables. The idea is to focus development along a two-mile commercial stretch of Route 9, away from homes and other tranquil parts of the community, the mayor noted.
Linda Fahmie, a real estate agent and developer, is marketing 126 acres of commercially zoned property along Route 9 and Route 539. She said Little Egg Harbor is strategically located between New York City, Philadelphia and Atlantic City and offers major highway access via the Garden State Parkway.
“That whole area is ready to explode with development,” said Fahmie, a commercial agent with Keller Williams and founder of the Princeton-based ROI Renovations and Development.
Fahmie’s father, Lou, now 80 years old and living in retirement in Hollywood, Florida, began buying land in Little Egg Harbor in the 1980s after recognizing its investment potential. Linda Fahmie said national retail chains were close to reaching deals with the Fahmie family before they were scared off by the recession. The region’s post-recession recovery has re-ignited interest in the land, including talks with national retailers and entertainment chains, Fahmie said.
Wal-Mart bought its site from the Fahmie family. The Fahmies still own 68 acres designated for retail development and another 26 acres also approved for retail use. Linda Fahmie is also marketing a series of smaller tracts, not owned by her family, as part of the total of 126 acres of surrounding land she is looking to sell.
New development is key to Little Egg Harbor’s efforts to recover from Hurricane Sandy’s blow in 2012. Winds and widespread flooding damaged roughly 5,000 homes, particularly in the township’s Mystic Island section.
Sandy robbed the township of a good part of its ratables, so commercial development such as the new Wal-Mart will be counted on to revitalize the property tax base. Wal-Mart is expected to pay about $275,000 annually in local property taxes, Midgley said.
Work on the Wal-Mart site began in June, with the store’s grand opening scheduled for July 2016, construction officials said. Containing 161,000 square feet of space, the store will dominate the Route 9 corridor at Otis Bog Road and serve as a catalyst for development around it in years to come.
New Jersey Future, a nonprofit planning-advocacy group that is helping Little Egg Harbor and neighboring Tuckerton chart their post-Sandy growth, has proposed that they concentrate their commercial development outside of environmentally sensitive coastal areas.
“The desire of the residents is to maintain the charm of the community. They also want to bring in new economic development, but preserve what they love of the area. That certainly includes the waterfront activities,” said Leah Yasenchak, local recovery manager for New Jersey Future.
Although petitions and lawsuits filed by local Wal-Mart opponents delayed the project for several years, the courts ultimately ruled in the company’s favor. Midgley said most residents support the project and the taxes it will generate for the community.
“As long as it is kept in the Route 9 corridor, I found that by an 80-20 margin people are in favor of this,” he said.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer, has done a local demographic study that underscores the township’s potential for more development as well as the prospects for its new store, Midgley said.
“They are a major corporation. It means there is potential here. It also means there is growth here and that their sales will be good,” the mayor said.
Midgley believes the addition of new retail attractions and restaurants on the Route 9 corridor would make it more convenient for senior citizens. Retirees and senior citizens make up about 43 percent of the township’s roughly 20,000 residents, according to U.S. census data.
“The seniors tell me over and over that they don’t want to drive up to Manahawkin to a restaurant,” Midgley said.
For years, Little Egg Harbor officials had hoped the commercial development that exploded in the Manahawkin section of neighboring Stafford Township would spread to their community. Stafford’s five shopping centers along the Route 72 corridor brought big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kmart to town.
Traffic buildup created by Stafford’s shopping attractions is something Little Egg Harbor will watch as it transitions to more commercial development along Route 9.
“There certainly was discussion about alleviating traffic problems, improving circulation and looking at downtown development outside of vulnerable areas,” Yasenchak said of the growth plans.
Two new traffic lights are planned on Route 9 to help control the flow of traffic in and out of the new Wal-Mart. One light will be at Otis Bog Road and the other near the Tractor Supply Co. store across from Wal-Mart, Midgley said.
In comparison to Stafford, Little Egg Harbor currently has only a modest commercial presence, including an Acme supermarket and a McDonald’s chain on Route 9, just up the road from Tractor Supply and the Wal-Mart site. The opening of the Tractor Supply store last year was hailed as the start of better things to come.