Burlington City may be on the way back

The Camden-Trenton River Line passes by High Street in Burlington City, offering access to the revitalized downtown.
The Camden-Trenton River Line passes by High Street in Burlington City, offering access to the revitalized downtown. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2014

A renewal appears to be stirring in Burlington City, one year after city officials launched a strategy to reverse the fortunes of the depressed community on the Delaware.

On a warm day last week the subtle signs were there, from the begonias and plum marigolds planted around the downtown trees, to the customers filling the seats at a sidewalk cafe, to the stream of cars crawling down High Street.

Signs on two storefront windows announced a new brewery and a hair salon are coming soon, words of hope that replaced the dreariness of empty, darkened buildings that have marred the downtown in recent years. A few months ago, Ghost Hunters became the latest addition to the hodgepodge of boutiques, antique markets, a tattoo place, a quilt shop, pizzerias, banks, and vacant buildings that make up the shopping district. The owners of Ghost Hunters organize haunted tours and sell equipment that they say proves the existence of ephemeral beings.

"I see the signs of change coming about," said Chris Seiler, a local Realtor who chairs the city's Chamber of Commerce. "There's a lot of action."

Nearby, the waterfront was not bustling, but there were some joggers, dog-walkers, and a crew team dropping long boats into the river. At Curtin's Marina dockside restaurant, a lunch crowd was arriving.

In the spring of 2013, city officials hired a redevelopment consultant to find ways to turn the distressed city of 10,000 around. The median income was $54,138, and more than 10 percent of the residents lived below the poverty level, according to a 2010 Census report. The downtown had about two dozen vacancies, scattered over several blocks.

Since then, a variety of plans have been announced. Though many are still conceptual, a new outlook is beginning to grab hold.

Jay Mahoney sensed this after he began exploring several locations to launch a brewery. "Burlington just stuck out," he said, explaining why he and his partners at Third State Brewery chose the city.

Mahoney, a director of operations at a Cherry Hill software company and a home brewer for nearly two decades, said he was impressed that city officials had hired Jim Kennedy as a consultant, and then hired an architect to redesign the waterfront.

"They have a lot of vision going on," said Mahoney, who plans to open in November in a 3,200-square-foot former bank. He intends to sell six craft beers at a time and offer tours and a tasting room.

At least five other restaurants are expected to open in the business district, said City Administrator Dave Ballard.

"It can't move fast enough for me; it's painfully slow," Ballard said, after ticking off a list of projects he says are underway. "But you have to do it right and cross every t and dot every i. We're committed to redevelopment and to bringing this town back."

The news that other investors are eyeing Burlington, Mahoney said, also persuaded him to look seriously at the city. "As the saying goes, The rising tide floats all boats, and we're hoping to get in on the ground floor and have a good future here," he said.

Ballard said one investor was considering opening another brewery on Pearl Street, just off High Street, in a building considered the first brewhouse in the state.

Another is planning to renovate the historic Endeavor Fire Company No. 1 and Emergency Squad building to convert it into a sprawling gourmet pizzeria and upscale tavern. A restaurant group that calls itself Smith has entered into an agreement of sale and intends to use the building to repeat the success it has had with similar efforts in Asbury Park and elsewhere in North Jersey, Ballard said.

Once the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection certifies there is no contamination in the soil where two underground heating-oil tanks were recently removed from the firehouse site, Ballard said, the group should begin work, with an eye toward opening next year.

Smith has also announced it would like to open one or two additional restaurants in the city.

Meanwhile, the shuttered Cafe Gallery, a French restaurant that for 35 years was a destination, has found a buyer who wants to reopen as another eatery, according to Seiler. She declined further comment, saying the deal had not been made final. "We hope that the next person who goes in there can be as successful and can be open as long," she said.

Mayor Jim Fazzone said the city was just as enthusiastic about a new look for the waterfront. The city recently awarded a $100,000 contract to Olin Studios, of Philadelphia, to conduct a study and suggest ways to make the grassy open space next to the Delaware more attractive to tourists. "They have a good track record," Fazzone said, noting Olin designed the Baltimore Harbour.

Olin is exploring improvements to the landscaping, including a sculpture garden.

Ballard said the waterfront currently hosts seven summer concerts that draw about 100 people each. But a redesign, he said, could turn the waterfront into a concert venue that could bring in 7,000 to 10,000. Olin is expected to submit a detailed proposal in December, he said.

The city also has received a $100,000 National Boating Infrastructure grant to hire an engineering firm to design a 16-slip public marina on the waterfront and to prepare applications for environmental reviews. "People can come to our restaurant district on the train, by car, and now they will be able to come by boat," Fazzone said.

As part of the overall redevelopment, 200 market-rate apartments are also planned for vacant land near the river and the downtown.

Kennedy, the redevelopment consultant, said three developers were scheduled to meet with city officials later this month to discuss their proposals and to vie for a contract. The hope is that the new residents would patronize the businesses in the downtown and use the waterfront, he said.

In another section of the city, a long abandoned knitting mill on Assicunk Creek is being converted into a 65-unit affordable-housing community. Ingerman, a redevelopment company based in Cherry Hill, recently broke ground on this $15 million project, known as The Apartments at the Mill. The first rentals are expected to be available next spring.

"Everything is pretty much on target," Kennedy said. And the mood on High Street seems to reflect an anticipation of what may come.

Editors Note: This story has been changed to reflect that Ingerman is based in Cherry Hill, not Hackensack.


Burlington City

Size: 3.06 sq. miles.

Population (2010): 9,920 (in 2013 the bureau estimated the population at 9,850).

Population breakdown: 59 percent white; 33 percent black or African American;

6.5 percent Hispanic.

Median household income: $54,138

(10.5 percent of the population was below the poverty level).

SOURCE: U.S. Census


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224856-779-3224  @JanHefler

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