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Former mayor recalls Hamilton Mall opening

Sept. 10, 1987, was a very special day in the history of Hamilton Township. It was also certainly a day that is etched fondly in my memory. That was the day the Hamilton Mall opened its doors to customers for the first time.

I was very fortunate to have served as mayor that year and thus had the opportunity to cut the ribbon and give a speech at the opening-day ceremony. That followed an invitation-only gala bash the previous evening that attracted every possible mover and shaker from the area. After the ceremony, the party atmosphere continued at Boomer's, a club then located where Ruby Tuesday's now sits.

Rumors of the potential for the development of a regional mall had circulated for many years, and a period of economic downturn made it unlikely that the rumors would turn into reality. However, the Kravco Co., a developer based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, saw the promise in the area and decided to move forward with the project. Kravco made numerous presentations before the Hamilton Township Planning Board in the early 1980s before the board gave a final go-ahead. Board members were excited to see the project granted the approval, yet worked hard to make sure the plan was done with the best interest of local residents in mind.

Construction on the $100 million center commenced in November 1985. The fact that the New Jersey Pinelands Commission had declared the area surrounding the property a regional growth zone no doubt added to the company’s desire to move forward. Indeed, the population of the township has more than tripled since the company’s groundbreaking. Fortunately at the time the township had a good working relationship with the commission and they were working together to bring the township into conformance with the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. An adversarial situation would have no doubt slowed the project.

The township and the developer, led by Joe Esposito, Kravco's vice president of development, also worked well with the New Jersey Department of Transportation to design and create a workable traffic signalization plan.

Before the mall opened, area residents mainly frequented the Shore Mall, or traveled to Cherry Hill or Deptford to shop at the larger malls located there. The new mall had an obvious impact on the Shore Mall, as Sears and J.C. Penney moved from that location to join Macy’s as the three anchor stores in the Hamilton Mall.

When the mall opened, I recall many residents expressing concern the township would become another Cherry Hill, with the resulting traffic and social issues. While the multitude of new traffic signals (I do miss the Racetrack Circle!) have slowed things down, and the shopping areas have kept our Police Department busy, there is no doubt that the decision by the Kravco executives to invest in Hamilton Township was the right one for them, and a beneficial one for the residents of the township.

The opening of the mall also served as a catalyst for the creation of more shopping centers that has made Hamilton Township the county’s hub of retail development. The Festival Shopping Center, Consumer Square and Hamilton Commons all took their cue from their groundbreaking counterpart.

In order to keep pace with its neighboring centers, the mall continues to add improvements that lately include a new food court and upgraded restrooms. The addition of Longhorn Steak House and Buffalo Wild Wings are bringing more diners to the site than ever before. The convenience center, located in the rear of the mall, is also nearing full occupancy with the addition of Bob's Discount Furniture and Planet Fitness. While there has been some turnover among the retailers, new businesses continue to seek out space in the mall. As the economy continues to improve, there is no doubt the Hamilton Mall will remain the foremost shopping destination in the area.

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