HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Phil Sartorio, the township’s director of community planning and economic development, swears he cannot see into the future.
HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — No one had to tell Lauren H. Moore Jr., the Atlantic County Economic Alliance executive director, that the Sears department store in the Hamilton Mall was closing last year.
The Economic Alliance’s office is across the hall from the second-floor entrance to what was Sears. The store’s name no longer hangs above the entranceway.
“The evolution of brick-and-mortar retail and what the Hamilton Mall is experiencing is happening nationwide and globally. This is no unique circumstance that the Hamilton Mall is experiencing by any stretch of the imagination,” Moore said.
The Hamilton Mall, which opened in 1987, is facing one of the most challenging periods in its history as it deals with online competition and other brick-and-mortar competitors that have sprung up.
JCPenney, the second of the mall’s three anchor stores, will close July 5. Macy’s, the third anchor store, has no plans to close, but the chain will be closing eight locations this year nationwide.
When anchor stores close, it affects the mall’s value, which in turn decreases the amount of money the mall is paying the township.
The mall had a value of $90.78 million in 2017, but it was reduced to $75 million last year. The mall value was reduced again to $50 million this year. There is another active tax appeal for 2019 for the mall, said William M. Johnson, the township tax assessor.
The Township Committee last month unanimously introduced its 2019 budget, which calls for a two-cent increase in the local property-tax rate.
Officials cited a $400,000 loss from a tax appeal by the mall as the main reason for the increase.
HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Phil Sartorio, the township’s director of community planning and economic development, swears he cannot see into the future.
Even with Sears closed and JCPenney shutting soon, the mall is still a successful operation as the only enclosed mall in either Atlantic or Cape May counties, said Crystal Rodriguez, the mall’s marketing manager.
Sears pays rent to the mall for its location, while JCPenney owns its area of the mall. Neither company has told the mall yet what it plans to do with the space it occupies, Rodriguez said.
Brick-and-mortar retailers have to deal with more people ordering their goods online annually, but the Hamilton Mall has the additional burden of competing against a tremendous amount of retail in a small geographical area.
When the mall was almost brand new 30 years ago, its only major competition was the Festival at Hamilton across the Black Horse Pike and the then Shore Mall and the English Creek Shopping Center in Egg Harbor Township.
Since that time, there has been an explosion of retail around the mall, including a Walmart and several shopping plazas — Consumer Square, Hamilton Commons and the 270,000-square-foot Gravelly Run Square, which has two stores open and is still under construction.
More retail can be found seven miles away at the almost 250,000-square-foot Oak Tree Plaza that opened in 2017 with a new 24-hour Walmart SuperCenter and is still adding businesses; and 13.5 miles away at the only outlet mall in Atlantic County, the 71 stores and restaurants of Tanger Outlet Atlantic City, commonly known as The Walk, which opened in 2003.
Outlets appear to be much more of a robust segment than traditional retail, said Lisa Wagner, principal of The Outlet Resource Group, a consultant, marketing, license and design company.
The change took place after the 2007-09 recession, Wagner said.
“Consumers found that they could still get the brands that they wanted, and that they had become accustomed to, but at a better value in outlets, so we have seen a great expansion of the outlet industry since the recession,” Wagner said.
The stores still in the Hamilton Mall, especially the ones operated by local, independent operators, are not just sitting back and letting online and other brick-and-mortar retailers steal their customers.
They are cultivating their own niches and working with mall management and on their own to ensure their patrons stay loyal to them.
Level Up Entertainment, a store for comics, games, toys and more, is gearing up for Free Comic Book Day on May 4.
After being in Tilton Times Plaza in Egg Harbor Township, the business has grown during the eight years Level Up has been at the mall, said co-owner Gregg Mester, 40.
“The mall has helped us tremendously just by having the walking traffic in the mall. It helps us a ton with marketing. They want us to succeed, and they want to succeed, so they have been really helpful, especially with our big events,” Mester said.
Level Up has its own niche as the biggest comic book store unless someone drives to Toms River, Ocean County, to the north, or Berlin or Cherry Hill, Camden County, to the west.
Christina Sweiderk, 27, opened Blink Beauty & Wellness in 2017 in the mall, when she had a whole host of other choices to establish her business.
“I needed the foot traffic to build up the clientele. I had a Black Friday start. I picked up my first eight clients that day. I was out there hustling and talking to everyone and really bringing them in,” Sweiderk said. “In a strip mall, I think I would have gotten lost because they would have driven right by me, whereas people are walking by to shop (in the mall).”
Sweiderk, who has been successful enough at the Hamilton Mall to open a second location in the Staten Island Mall in New York, believes she will be OK in the future with Sears closed and JCPenney closing because she offers the niche services of full-set and fill-in eyelash extensions.
Sisters Jaime Hannigan and Lisa Muratore, co-owners of White Lotus, have expanded their mall specialty business from just a jewelry and clothing store to offer health, wellness and metaphysical products such as candles.
Even if Sears were still open and JCPenney was not closing, White Lotus is always pivoting and moving and evolving in its own direction, said Hannigan, 35, of Egg Harbor Township.
Since the store opened, it has done its own digital marketing and is always trying to bring in revenue streams. The sisters attend 50 to 60 events annually, including festivals that attract 20,000 to 60,000 people.
They guide traffic from those events into the store.
“From a bigger perspective, it’s not about what’s opening and closing around you, it’s about understanding your demographic and your marketing and learning how to drive people into your store,” Hannigan said.
MAYS LANDING — On the Hamilton Mall’s second floor, a vacant store sits dark and empty.
Come May, Ren Parikh pictures a completely different scene.
The 42-year-old entrepreneur is opening a virtual reality lab in the space, where players can strap on headsets and be transported to the streets of Paris or inside a “Fortnite” game.
It’s the kind of reimagining some experts say is needed to revitalize the dying, decades-old shopping center.
“It used to be, people go to the mall just for shopping,” said Parikh, owner of Ideal Institute of Technology, an adult vocational school with offices on the first floor.
But now, he says, that’s changing.
As the mall’s future hangs in the balance, with two of its three anchors closing in the past year, Parikh is one of many thinking of creative ways to breathe new life into the shopping center.
The Atlantic County Economic Alliance, which moved its headquarters into the building, is working to bring esports tournaments to the mall, Executive Director Lauren H. Moore Jr. said.
The idea? Let schools hold competitions in the shopping center, and hopefully draw a younger crowd into the stores as a result.
The organization is partnering with consulting company INGAME Esports, the same group working to get competitions into Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
“There is a real opportunity here for this,” Moore said.
The company agrees and is buying into the mall’s future.
“What we’ve been doing is helping the mall kind of reinvent themselves,” said Anthony Gaud, of Linwood, co-founder of INGAME. “We look at malls as the potential soccer fields of future high school and middle schools sports. … The perfect place to do it is the place designed for social interaction.”
Also in the works is a cooking competition that would net the winner one year of free space in an area that is already empty in the food court. Still in the planning stages, the submissions would be judged by a panel of chefs, celebrities and local dignitaries.
Hamilton Township officials have tried to lend a hand to the mall. Last month, township director Phil Sartorio said he told the mall owners the municipality was willing to designate the shopping center as an “area in need of redevelopment.”
Such a designation would give the township the power to offer tax-abatement incentives for projects done on the property.
“We can work with them as a redevelopment area, similar to what we have done with the racetrack,” Sartorio said in an interview in March, referring to the Atlantic City Race Course, which closed in 2015.
Some new malls — like the American Dream at the Meadowlands, in development since Jim McGreevey was governor — are eyeing even more ambitious amenities.
A Nickelodeon Universe theme park, indoor ski slope and Dreamworks water park are in the works there.
But those looking to transform the Hamilton shopping center can take lessons from other New Jersey malls currently going through a metamorphosis.
At the former Echelon Mall in Voorhees Township, Camden County, stakeholders looked for a different way to attract people.
The mall’s demise began in the early 2000s but worsened after current owner Namdar bought the property in 2015.
The real estate group has neglected the building, township officials say, leaving behind broken elevators and an increasing vacancy rate.
The township responded by investing millions to open new municipal offices there six years ago, and more recently relocating the local library branch.
That was just a starting point though, said Voorhees Economic Development Director Mario DiNatale.
Last year, the township began a now-complete search for a new owner and has threatened to use eminent domain to take the property.
The Planning Board approved zoning easements so potential developers don’t have to seek variances, scrapping restrictive regulations and making more shops allowable.
They then spent $50,000 on an appraisal, redevelopment study, market analysis and title survey. That’s work DiNatale said the buyer would typically be responsible for.
“Towns have to make the investment,” DiNatale said. “Do the legwork for developers.”
Brandywine Financial Services Corp., the new developer, was selected last September, with plans to replace the mall with 180 high-end townhomes, bowling alleys, restaurants and other retail entertainment.
Where others see stagnation, VR lab owner Parikh sees the Hamilton Mall’s future as a destination for entertainment.
“I think the community, as a county, need innovation in the mall,” he said.
ATLANTIC CITY — In the new teen center at the local Boys & Girls Club, Michelle Carrera is hoping to create not only a space for teens to go after school, but a place to help them develop into successful adults.
“We’re here to make sure that they have the best future that they can have,” said Carrera, the club’s executive director. “Our youth are full of potential and they just need the correct opportunities.”
Construction on the center is underway at the club’s Pennsylvania Avenue location, which will serve about 400 more teens a year. The club currently serves about 1,900 youth in the city each year.
Carrera said the space will finally provide a dedicated, after-school space for the city’s teens, who previously had to wait until after the younger kids cleared out for access.
The center is designed to keep them on a positive path to a career and out of poverty with college readiness programs and workforce development in hospitality, health and technology.
“This is a strategy to break the cycle of poverty,” Carrera said.
During its strategic planning, the Boys & Girls Club found that the number of teens it was serving was disproportionate to younger children, likely because it wasn’t providing the space for teens when they needed it.
Carrera said on a typical day, the club served 40 teens compared to 150 younger children.
“We were losing our kids when they turned 14 because they had to wait until 6 p.m. to access our building,” Carrera said, because of state laws. “We knew that we needed a positive space for them.”
The Boys & Girls Club got lucky two years ago when the previous occupants of the building directly behind them on Drexel Avenue — the former Ursy Head Start Center — vacated the space, which is owned by the city. In December 2017, Atlantic City entered into a $1-a-year lease with the Boys and Girls Club for the building and the club transferred its younger children to that space.
Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr. said the city wanted to help because it supports all organizations that concentrate on the city’s youth.
“Hearing the cry that there isn’t enough for our teens, it is our pleasure to partner with the Boys & Girls Club and any other project supporting our youth,” Gilliam said.
Atlantic City Superintendent Barry Caldwell said many of the high school’s 1,900 students participate in after-school club and sports, but it’s important to have more safe spaces for the students to go and thrive.
“If there’s places for those students to go and participate in those activities I’m all for it, and I’m going to do everything I can to help the Boys & Girls Club be successful,” he said.
The club is working with the school district to promote its programming.
Last fall, the club kicked off its most aggressive fundraising campaign to date, hoping to raise $2 million for the teen center. To date, the campaign has raised $1.5 million, $500,000 of which came from MGM Resorts International, owner of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. About a quarter of the funding is being used for the renovations and the remainder will be used for the programming for the next five years.
“We want to be accountable for the outcomes we are proposing for the community, to our stakeholders and the youth,” Carrera said.
Boys & Girls Club board member and local restaurateur Cookie Till, who is co-chairing the capital campaign for the teen center, said it was Carrera’s vision for the club that made her increase her involvement. She is eager for the business partnerships to create opportunity for local youth.
“I think it’s something that’s going to be great. The kids are going to have the ability to learn a skill before they even get out of high school,” Till said. “I feel like the goal of the whole program and the STEM project are to get kids either comfortably job ready or ready to go to college by the time they graduate, which is huge.”
The teen center is expected to open in June with a summer camp for middle school students to help them transition to high school.
Teens will be able to access the center at 3 p.m. beginning in September.
To donate to the campaign, visit acbgc.org.
ATLANTIC CITY — The city’s Fire Department has been cleared to hire entry-level firefighters after dropping to an unsafe staffing level earlier this month.
Eleven firefighters retired April 1, leaving the department with 175 staff members, according to the union. A judge ruled in 2017 that a dip below 180 firefighters would be a threat to public safety.
City officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The state Department of Community Affairs, which has unilateral authority over personnel decisions in the city under the 2016 takeover law, has been working with the city to prepare an application and advertisements for entry-level firefighter positions after “more retirements than expected,” DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan wrote in an email Friday. Advertisements are scheduled to go out early next week, and the application will be available April 15.
They “anticipate being in a position to hire candidates in about two months from the application period start,” Ryan said. “We are very confident that the Fire Department is able to appropriately protect and serve the city at the current manpower level while we work to hire firefighters.”
In October 2017, Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez ruled the city would need to keep staffing to 180 firefighters . The department has lost more than 100 members since 2010.
The city submitted a SAFER, or Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency last month after approval from the DCA, Ryan said, which would enable the city to increase the number of firefighters.
The state prevented the department from applying for the grant last May, citing fiscal responsibility, since the grants only cover a percentage of the cost of new hires, 75 percent for two years and 35 percent in the third year, and the municipality is responsible for the remainder each year.
The grant also doesn’t cover health care and pension obligations.
John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the firefighters union, said the lack of staff has had a “serious negative impact” on the level of service the department is providing.
“However, we are working trying to address that immediately,” he said. “Is this something that can go on for a month or two without being addressed? Absolutely not.”
The union plans to meet with the state again April 17.
Varallo said the department is lacking in a few areas of the command structure — five of the firefighters who retired were captains — and one or two companies are closed on a regular basis, which negatively affects response times. He cited the January 2018 three-alarm blaze at Charles P. Jeffries Tower, during which firefighters had to rescue about 300 elderly and wheelchair-bound residents from the high-rise condo complex.
“At that point in time, we were probably close to 200 and we were completely maxed out. ... We couldn’t have handled anything else,” he said.
According to the DCA, the department reported 7,021 incidents, which included 4,477 EMS calls in 2017. Those numbers increased the following year to 8,133 incidents which included 4,872 EMS calls.
In addition to fires, the department responds to car accidents, water rescues, Hazmat emergencies, high-angle rescues, collapses, natural disasters, elevator entrapments and first aid calls around the clock.
“You just put all of this stuff together in a pot, and you just have a recipe for a department right now that’s a disaster,” Varallo said.