Amid the uncertainty, business is foundering. Shop owners say many customers don't realize the mart is still open for business and have stopped coming. Merchants say that in recent months, colleagues have shuttered shops at a rate of about one a week, unable to remain profitable.
"People don't know what's going on," said Kerry Yobb, owner of Gold Emporium and president of the mart merchants' association. "It's been nerve-wracking."
Camden County officials said they were "making progress" in negotiations with mart owner Elliott Kattan to buy his portion of the 65-acre redevelopment zone at the junction of Routes 73, 90 and 130.
Current plans call for the 50-year-old mart to be demolished in October to make way for the $60 million center, which officials said could open in 2006. But that schedule could be altered if the mart's tenants don't have a place to go by then.
A majority of the roughly 100 tenants had planned to move en masse to the Village Mall in Willingboro. But the Burlington County mall's developers haven't yet sought local approvals to revamp the dilapidated property on Route 130.
Mall owner Scott Plapinger did not return calls for comment.
"He has not submitted any formal plans, and that's what we need to do anything," said Willingboro Mayor Eddie Campbell Jr., who sits on the town planning board. "Right now, it's sort of dead in the water, so to speak."
The future also is cloudy for merchants who have committed to following mart owner Kattan to a new strip mall he plans to build near the Airport Circle in Pennsauken. Originally, that mall was supposed to open in the fall. But last week, Kattan said he was still seeking approvals and an opening was unlikely before 2005.
County officials offered reassurance they wouldn't force the merchants out prematurely.
"We won't be moving people out until they have a place to go," said Mark Asselta, the attorney representing the county in its negotiations with Kattan. "The hope is that it will be Willingboro . . . but if for whatever reason the Willingboro site doesn't work out, we have an obligation to assist with the relocation of the tenants."
The problem, merchants pointed out Friday, is that much of the county's obligation doesn't kick in until it officially takes possession of the mart. Under a settlement reached with the merchants, the county will offer a 20 percent reduction in rent when it takes control. The county also has agreed to advertise the mart and let people know that it is, for now, still open for business.
County officials said last week that a deal with Kattan could be struck soon. "We're optimistic we're going to get a deal done, we're just not there yet," Asselta said.
Merchants say they have heard it all before. For months, they say, they have been waiting for the county to make good on a vow to move swiftly to acquire the mart and help them out.
"I feel we've been lied to by everybody," said Scott Talis, who has operated Play With This Collectible Toys for 11 years. "I don't believe anybody right now."
Because the mart is in a declared redevelopment zone, county officials have the power to take it by eminent domain, forcing Kattan to sell it for a price they set. The county last year offered $9.3 million and at the time, Kattan's lawyers said his property was worth more than twice that.
Since then, county officials have been negotiating with Kattan to come up with a price and terms acceptable to both parties. They said they would resort to an all-out land grab only if they hit a brick wall.
In the meantime, merchants say, they are suffering.
A trickle of customers wandered by an ever-increasing number of shuttered stalls on Friday to pick through the mart's offerings, everything from racy lingerie to parakeets to laughing statues of Buddha and soft pretzels.
"A lot of people were relying on the reduced rent to stay alive," said Al Brody, co-owner of the Mart Trading Post. "This has really hurt us a lot."
Luis Vicent, owner of the Pennsauken Mart Photo Lab, is hanging in, hoping the Village Mall deal will come through. It's getting harder and harder.
Business is "terrible, lousy," he said. "Every day it's worse."
Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 856-779-3810 or firstname.lastname@example.org.