Workers on Wednesday set to fixing the roofs on the old Gordon Furniture building and Redmen's Hall, two empty landmarks that are considered prime retail space.
In addition, signs advertising free public parking lots have gone up in the last several weeks, and town officials say they are helping to ease crowded on-street parking.
So far, the township has spent more than $200,000 in Urban Economic Zone funds and local funds in its pursuit of a thriving block for business.
The object is to give a face-lift to a stretch that includes at least eight stores that are empty or lack window displays and signs.
"Some of these stores that are available could be occupied in pretty short order," said Tom Saltzgueber, president of the Greater Mount Holly Business and Professional Association and a member of the township's Urban Economic Zone board.
But several downtown business owners said new businesses in Redmen's Hall and the former Gordon Furniture building would not solve the problems. Bad township leadership during the last two decades has produced an ugly, ill-conceived block that has been plagued by transient businesses, they said.
On the western end of the stretch, the empty storefronts end with Madden's Mount Holly True Value Hardware at 20 Mill St. On the other end of the block is a squat, brick hospice building; Berry's Bait & Tackle; and a Wawa market. More vacancies have appeared in the last year, since Gordon Furniture left for more spacious digs on Route 38 and Jax Army & Navy and the Hot Tamales restaurant went out of business.
"It looks terrible," said Madden's owner Art Eldred.
He blamed township leadership for not cultivating the type of specialty stores that could compete with South Jersey's proliferation of shopping malls. And prospective business owners have stayed away because of the scarcity of on-street parking, Eldred said.
John Lazzarotti, a candidate for Township Council, questioned Mount Holly's March 30 purchase of the two buildings for $160,000 and the renovations, saying the township has no guarantee that businesses will move in.
John Berry, owner of Berry's Bait & Tackle, blamed the empty stores on a dearth of mom-and-pop businesses, which cannot compete with the prices at nearby superstores such as Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot. "When you start getting the malls, what's left for your little guy?" he asked.
And Heidi Winzinger, who manages 15 properties in Mill Race, a restored arts-and-crafts village around the corner, said the block's overriding ugliness kept retailers away.
She said the Wawa building, with its large parking lot, disrupted the store-lined feel of downtown, and that the brick hospice and two residences look awkward.
In addition, shoppers do not use the off-street lots because they do not see the intersection of High and Mill and the surrounding neighborhoods as an attractive area, Winzinger said.
"Aesthetics are the worst issue. I think people are willing to walk a little further if the walk is pleasant, but we don't have that. We don't have nice, wide sidewalks," she said.
But Winzinger expressed satisfaction with the current town leadership, and said she was optimistic that town planners had ideas that would resuscitate Mount Holly's commercial districts.
Township officials say they are making progress.
Since the new blue-and-green parking signs went up, the lots have begun to fill, town officials said.
In the past, the lots were either out of the sight of Mill and High Street shoppers, or had signs that made shoppers think they could not park there, they said.
Township officials also plan improvements to a run-down parking lot on Paxson Street in hopes of increasing its use. The improvements to the approximately 80-space lot, which would be paid for with Urban Economic Zone funds, would include a new surface, lights and signs, officials said.
The proposal has not yet been submitted to the state Urban Economic Zone authority, and any funds would likely not be released before spring, said Mount Holly's Urban Economic Zone executive director, Dan Seachord.
Mount Holly got Urban Economic Zone status from the state in 1995. The designation means that member businesses pour half of their 6 percent sales tax into an account, administered by the state, to pay for improvement and job-creation projects.
The town has a 10-member Urban Economic Zone board that decides on proposals to the state board, which must approve projects before funds can be spent.
Township officials are discussing using zone grants to improve the appearance of Mill Street's buildings in hopes of bringing "some semblance of order" to their arrangement, Saltzgueber said.
New retailers will be in the renovated Redmen's Hall and Gordon Furniture building by spring, increasing customer traffic and reviving business on the whole block, township officials predict.
The two buildings make up "one of the most significant pieces of property in the downtown area," said Seachord, noting that the properties contain almost 16,000 square feet of space.
Saltzgueber said that interest in the two buildings from a major Southeastern Pennsylvania service outlet had cooled, but that there were other prospects. The town is particularly looking for upscale or specialty stores, he said.
The two buildings are a township priority because they provide businesses an "anchor on that end of town," Saltzgueber said.