Hope of return flickers on for old Pennsauken Mart merchants

Posted: March 08, 2014

They are like nomads, displaced eight years ago by brutal competition and a slowing economy from their longtime home, the old Pennsauken Mart on Route 130.

Life after the popular South Jersey shopping venue closed in January 2006 hasn't been the same for a large contingent of former merchants, many of whom long for the resurrection of the Mart - as it was affectionately referred to by regulars and vendors alike.

"It was a mom-and-pop operation, and you had the same people coming in week after week, and you got to know your customer," said Kerry Yobb, 62, who was president of the Pennsauken Mart Merchants' Association and owned Gold Emporium, a jewelry store there, for 28 years. "You'd go out of your way to help each other out. . . . There was a family feeling among merchants."

That family was broken up a few years after Camden County took over the place in 2003 with a $24 million redevelopment grant from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. The Pennsauken grant was one of the first the CRDA awarded to a New Jersey municipality outside Atlantic City.

In 2006, labeled an eyesore, the Mart was closed, and a year later, the buildings came down. Three years of environmental cleanup followed.

Four years later, there's still nothing on the 35-acre plot, except weeds and a billboard overlooking it that reads "Renaissance Walk" - the name of the latest proposed development at the site. Former Mart vendors, like Yobb, are skeptical.

Camden County officials say they have had to wait for "market conditions to improve" before moving forward with plans for housing, and possibly a hotel. They say the economy began tanking in late 2007 just as the township submitted a new redevelopment plan, and has not fully recovered.

James Blanda, executive director of the Camden County Improvement Authority - which provides low-cost financing, economic development, and project management services - said a developer has been chosen to build the residential component of Renaissance Walk - KMS Development Partners, a subsidiary of Keating Cos. of Philadelphia.

Blanda said KMS is lining up financing and plans to build up to 600 rental units on 30 of the 35 acres. The remaining five acres would be for commercial development.

"Rather than do something rash in poor market conditions, it was prudent to wait it out and wait for market conditions to improve," Blanda said on Thursday. "Our vision is to go in a positive direction and bring up that entire area . . . so that entire corridor will see investment."

Undeterred, and pointing to years of broken promises by the county - including unfulfilled plans in 2005 for an arena and civic center - Yobb is hoping a shining-knight developer will simply re-create the Pennsauken Mart.

"I'd have 100 tenants [of the old Mart] sign up within a week," Yobb said. "The developer would own the site, and I would provide the tenants."

A half-dozen other former merchants who were interviewed said Yobb wasn't exaggerating. They would return to a rebuilt Mart in a heartbeat.

"Absolutely," said Joyce Belfus, 59, of Northeast Philadelphia, whose father owned M&M Keys, a locksmith at the Mart, for many years.

Since the Mart shuttered, M&M Keys (which stood for Max, Belfus' father, and Marlyn, her sister) has moved from one flea market to another, not quite getting the same traffic.

The shop moved to the Grand Marketplace in Willingboro in November 2006, and left in May 2013 for the 80-year-old Columbus Farmers Market, an indoor and outdoor venue on Route 206 in Burlington County.

"So many people tell me, this is nothing like the Mart," Belfus said. "They met their friends and families there. Friday night, they would go to the movies and the Mart."

At Routes 130 and 73, the Pennsauken Mart had an enviable location.

It drew as many customers from Pennsylvania as it did from New Jersey by being near two major highways - the New Jersey Turnpike and I-295 - and three bridges: the Tacony-Palmyra, Ben Franklin, and Betsy Ross.

Before shopping malls and big-box discounters such as Kmart and Walmart gripped people's spending, the Mart was the region's draw. It had 120 stores offering a variety of things - liquor, clothing, food, jewelry repair, shoe shines, tailoring - and even an arcade.

"They had the best pizza," said Gene Wallace, 54, a mechanic from Pennsauken, who started going there at 4 years old with his father. He married, had children, and brought his own family there.

But competition eventually moved in - with malls like Cherry Hill, with their arrays of stores geared toward a more affluent clientele. Other marts came in - the Metro Marketplace in Edgewater Park and I-95 Marketplace in Levittown, both now gone.

Yobb, who has been at Grand Marketplace in Willingboro since it opened within a year of Pennsauken's closing, said other marts were all poor imitations of the real deal.

"Not a week goes by that a customer doesn't say, 'I miss the old Mart," he said. "That's why I can't let the place die."

Barry Levine, 68, owned Sox Place at Pennsauken Mart for a quarter-century - its only socks store. He said that kind of exclusivity is something newer marts don't honor.

When Levine, of Bensalem, moved to Grand Marketplace in 2006, there were 18 other vendors selling socks. "The new [owners] have to make a buck, and they have to make it with whomever and whatever," he said. "They're in real estate, and we're in retail."

Alan Rosenberg, 50, of Cherry Hill, owned an optician's shop at the Mart for 16 years. He said a "spirit of entrepreneurship died" with it.

"This was Pennsauken, where all types of people shopped from all types of merchants," he said. "It was a unique situation."

After the Mart closed, Rosenberg moved to a shopping center on Route 38 in Cherry Hill. He was there two years before closing the shop and filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He's worked as an optician for Walmart the last five years.


sparmley@phillynews.com

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