MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Officials are looking to the state to fund extensive traffic improvements to this historic town center, with an eye toward encouraging future business investment.
The township has applied for a $1.3 million grant to fund traffic improvements, including creating one-way sections for Mechanic Street and Hand Avenue, each for a single block near Route 9.
The grant could also fund beautification in the downtown, with lighting, benches, landscaping and more. New crosswalks are proposed both in front of the main branch of the Cape May County Library and on Route 9, known as Main Street in this area.
As proposed, Hand Avenue would be one way from Boyd Street east toward Route 9, with Mechanic Street one way heading west from Route 9. The plan also calls for angled parking on one side of the street, replacing parallel parking used now.
“But the most important part is a new light at Hand Avenue and Route 9, which is really needed now,” said township Business Administrator Elizabeth Terenik.
She believes the township has an excellent chance of landing the grant money. Representatives of both the state Department of Transportation and the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization worked on the planning recommendations on which the grant application was based, and the two organizations will have a say in how the grant money is awarded.
“They gave us a lot of really good insight. We followed their recommendations,” she said.
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The township submitted the grant application to the state Aug. 22.
Local officials hope the infrastructure work will help spur economic development in the downtown.
“Number one, it’s going to make it safe. Number two, it’s going to help us revitalize the downtown in general,” said Mayor Michael Clark. “It’s doing well, but I think it could do better.”
The town center in Cape May Court House has seen some new restaurants and businesses open in recent years, including the Bucket Brigade brewery on Route 9. But there have been setbacks as well, and several buildings on Mechanic Street that have long housed local businesses have “for sale” signs in their windows.
According to Clark, making stronger connections between the downtown and the township’s long bike path will also help with revitalization.
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Part of the plan is to use road-sharing signs along Mechanic Street to encourage riders and connect the downtown to the bike path. According to Terenik, these kind of shared use systems and bike-friendly improvements are of particular interest to grant makers.
The grant application also made clear there is a school nearby, a library, Township Hall and access to public transportation.
“And that’s what people want now. People want to be able to walk places,” she said. “We’re creating a pedestrian-friendly, connected community.”
She expressed confidence that the township will be able to move these plans forward. The township has also looked to zoning ordinances and what’s called Smart Growth planning, to seek to encourage development and redevelopment in the existing downtown where the infrastructure is already in place rather than expanding to new, potentially undeveloped areas.
Officials brought the proposal to residents at a July meeting. About 70 people attended, she said.
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“We got a lot of input. Some people were concerned about parking,” she said, while others raised issues with the speed of traffic and navigating the intersection. Many of the concerns focused on creating one-way streets, she said, adding that is always controversial.
Several Cape May County communities have downtowns, like Ocean City’s Asbury Avenue, Washington Street in Cape May and 96th Street in Stone Harbor, while in neighboring Upper Township, officials hope to create a walkable downtown in Marmora, moving away from big-box stores and wide parking areas.
But as the historic center for Cape May County, Cape May Court House is unique. While many county offices have moved to the far side of the parkway into the Crest Haven complex, the county clerk and other key offices remain downtown. The Superior Court also has a big impact on the downtown, bringing steady activity to the area on weekdays.
A number of historic buildings are in the area, including the Old Court House just down from the newer court facility.
“A big part of this is the history, creating a sense of place in the downtown,” said Terenik. “Cape May Court House has so much historic value, it has such as strong sense of place, with the architecture there.
“Some people are concerned about the change. Change is never easy. But the majority felt that this is going to be an improvement.”