Glassboro's downtown tries again for revitalization

Gloucester County Freeholder Heather Simmons says she sees the town square as a "vital component" in creating a walkable downtown.
Gloucester County Freeholder Heather Simmons says she sees the town square as a "vital component" in creating a walkable downtown. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 27, 2014

In Glassboro's historic downtown, the story of one building chronicles the district's past - and, perhaps, its future.

A colorful storefront at 11 E. High St. that now houses an artsy glass business previously held a short-lived studio and art gallery, a locally owned coffee shop, and, as far back as the mid-1900s, a neighborhood grocery store that was reportedly the first in the town to sell frozen food.

Once thriving and serving the everyday needs of nearby residents, this downtown district is the subject of a revitalization campaign as borough officials try to build on the success of nearby Rowan University and create a vibrant arts community.

A blacktop connection, Rowan Boulevard, which is a new roadway and $300 million redevelopment project, broke ground in 2009. But a vacant lot between the boulevard and the longtime downtown area - described by one person as the "gray area" between the old and new - testifies to the work still to be done.

Borough officials are excited to launch at least the first phase in filling in that gap by creating a town square.

"It's the perfect placement right in the middle of everything," said John Price, chairman of Glassboro Partners, a nonprofit group helping to plan the project. A 1.75-acre space, the public area is envisioned as a leafy hub for sidewalk sales, festivals, and music, with fountains, trees, temporary performance areas, and more.

Later this year, the borough plans to seed grass at the square, at Main and High Streets, replacing a temporary parking lot. The green space will break up the stretch of new pavement and be able to accommodate as many as 5,000 people at special events, such as an Italian festival.

Gloucester County Freeholder Heather Simmons, who does public relations for the borough, sees the town square as a "vital component" in creating a walkable downtown.

Simmons said an ice skating rink on a neighboring open space this winter attracted 40,000 people in two months, 80 percent of whom, she estimated, came from outside the borough.

"We're trying to follow that [example]," she said, "so that this is a regular destination."

Funding for the $4 million project has begun quietly. Glassboro Partners has raised $100,000, according to Price. A more public campaign is planned.

The borough has pledged $500,000 from an existing bond and has applied for state Green Acres funding. All told, the project could total between $3 million and $5 million, Glassboro administrator Joseph Brigandi Jr. said.

Business owners hope the square helps draw Rowan students downtown.

"It should connect the traffic flow nicely," said Joe Hartshorne, 23, of Voorhees, who opened Milky Way Glass at 11 E. High St. in December.

Hartshorne said he sells his glass products - including paperweights, marbles, and pipes - primarily to area residents. In addition to being attracted by the borough's fitting glass-manufacturing history, which earned it its name, Hartshorne said, he opened his business at the property because of the area's potential.

"Glassboro is sitting here rebuilding their arts district," said Hartshorne, who graduated with a business degree last year from the University of South Florida. "It seemed like the perfect spot."

That was not the case in recent decades. Like other main streets in the region, High Street began to suffer around the 1960s as malls and shopping centers lured away customers.

"Going back 40 years, we had a booming High Street with many retail stores," Mayor Leo McCabe said. "It was very effective. Unfortunately, they went away."

In the current revitalization effort, old buildings have been razed, including the historic Roxy Theater, a longtime accounting firm, and a former firehouse.

"Every time I see a new building gone, I go back to the picture of it and write down the date it's gone," said Robert Sands Jr., a historian, Glassboro native, and author of a book on the borough.

Sands said the nearby malls and other area destinations make carrying out the new vision a tall order.

"They've got a lot of competition," he said, "It's going to be interesting to see how it flies."

Hartshorne's store is among a number of recently opened shops some see as early indicators of resurgence. Other new arrivals include a Greek restaurant and a grilled cheese shop. The 13,000-square-foot Academy of Performing Arts building opened in 2011, hosting a dance studio and related businesses.

Many students, officials and business owners said, still cut their off-campus travels at Rowan Boulevard - nicknamed "RoBo" - which has a bookstore, hotel, hundreds of student beds, restaurants, and retail stores.

Brigandi said community programming was crucial and could move the town square beyond just a "pretty park for us to look at."

Apart from the square, he said, two planned arts centers on High Street would establish an inviting entertainment atmosphere: to the east, a multiuse theater to replace the Roxy Theater, and, to the west, a gallery and office space by Rowan in an unfinished townhouse building the university purchased.

"You need to have a couple of anchors that other businesses are attracted to and build around," said Rowan spokesman Joe Cardona, who added that the university would evaluate other opportunities on the street.

In 2006, before the boulevard project broke ground, a coffee shop at 11 E. High St. closed after nearly four years, citing low foot traffic. Last year, Christopher Flaherty, 25, of Glen Rock, Bergen County, closed his studio and gallery at the same location and moved the business to Sewell.

Flaherty, owner of the Resonance School of Music, concluded that the storefront property was not necessarily a fit for his by-appointment music instruction courses.

"I took over the space, and I tried to make it work, and it was very hard to make it work," Flaherty said. He also had office space in the Academy building.

He said the street had potential to evolve into an arts center, but said more related businesses were needed.

His successor in the space says that is happening.

"I really believe it will become the center street of the town" again, said Hartshorne, the glass shop owner. "There's not a doubt in my mind."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917

@AJFichera

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