MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Work began last week on the shopping center that was once home to Kmart and is planned to become the hub for social services in Cape May County.
Crews tore up sidewalks and prepared to repave the sprawling lot near Routes 47 and 9 near the heart of one of the largest retail areas in Cape May County. The Kmart closed in early 2017. Other businesses on the property, including the movie theater, also have shut down.
On the afternoon of Sept. 16, the Rent-A-Center in the corner of the shopping area once known as the Kmart Plaza was the only open business. To reach the store, potential customers had to pass the heavy equipment on site and a series of orange cones.
The store appeared to have the only intact section of sidewalk.
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“It’s been tough. It’s going to get a lot tougher in the next week,” said store manager Craig Roberson.
That’s when the sidewalk and paving work is expected to begin in earnest.
“But it’s going to get a lot better,” Roberson said. “We’re going to get foot traffic back.”
Since the Kmart shut its doors, he said, most customers call ahead to confirm the store is still open. He said it’s been at the location for about 17 years, and he expects the property to remain under county ownership. The only thing that’s changed is where they pay the rent.
In the short term, he said, he’s looking forward to new paving and sidewalks that will meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. In the longer term, new life in the former Kmart building will mean a big improvement for the shopping center.
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Cape May County purchased the property for $5.75 million at auction in 2018, announcing plans in December to consolidate county offices and create a medical clinic for veterans at the site. County officials have said the Department of Veterans Affairs is set to pay $1.3 million toward renovations to the building, with the county planning to spend millions more.
Plans call for commercial operations to continue at the site as well. That means a portion of the property will remain on the township’s tax rolls, Mayor Timothy Donohue said.
The Rio Grande site isn’t the only former store being converted to government offices. Pleasantville officials said earlier this year that the state Office of Parental Representation and the state Office of Law Guardian will go into the old Kmart building in the Pleasantville Shopping Center on the Black Horse Pike.
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Cape May County’s plans were part of the discussion at a workshop meeting of the Township Committee, held Sept. 16 in the Rio Grande Fire Hall across Route 47 from the former Kmart. County officials are expected to give a more detailed update at an October meeting, Donohue said.
Plans are for a private business section of the plaza and a public services area near Route 9, Donohue said.
That will include consolidating the county Social Services offices, now nearby on Route 9, the One-Stop Career Center now at 3810 New Jersey Ave. in Wildwood and other county offices inside the former Kmart building, along with the VA clinic. The veterans’ clinic could be open by the spring.
The first new private tenant already has signed a lease, Donohue said. Tractor Supply could be open before the end of 2019. The county sought proposals from companies to reopen the movie theater but has not yet approved a deal, Donohue said. He described an ambitious plan that will go beyond theaters to create a family entertainment center at the site.
Cape May County has a deal with the Cumberland County Improvement Authority to serve as project manager and to manage the commercial properties.
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According to Donohue, the county is set to invest about $25 million in the property. The alternative would have likely meant the plaza closing entirely, he said.
“That’s a win for the county, and I think it’s definitely a win for Middle Township,” Donohue said. “It’s good to see something physically happening there. That means there’s no turning back at this point.”
The noncounty commercial uses at the site will be taxable, township attorney Marcus Karavan said.
Rio Grande has seen massive growth in commercial development over the past two decades. In February, Walmart opened an expanded SuperCenter, offering groceries and produce as part of a multimillion-dollar renovation.
The area also is among the most troubled in the county, with police paying particular attention to it in recent years.
Police Chief Christopher Leusner told committee members last week about 30% of the reported crimes in the township took place within half a square mile of 9 and 47. He said efforts to increase enforcement in that area and opening a police substation in Rio Grande in 2016 have started to pay off. Reported crime is down in Rio Grande and around the township, he said.
“The research is clear. The police activity in these areas has a positive effect on these areas. People see the increased police activity. It acts as a deterrent,” Leusner said.