Kevin Riordan: Gloucester Twp. abatement could stir resentment

Site preparation has begun for Gloucester Premium Outlets, between the Black Horse Pike and Route 42 in Gloucester Township. The mayor is enthusiastic about the economic development it represents, but a tax abatement could breed resentment.
Site preparation has begun for Gloucester Premium Outlets, between the Black Horse Pike and Route 42 in Gloucester Township. The mayor is enthusiastic about the economic development it represents, but a tax abatement could breed resentment. (KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff)
Posted: August 25, 2014

For decades, Gloucester Township has yearned to earn a place on the regional retailing map. But the construction of an upscale discount shopping complex in the Blackwood section is provoking mixed emotions.

Gloucester Premium Outlets "will be the largest economic development project in the history of our community," says Mayor David Mayer, who describes the center as "a $40 million [property tax] ratable, when all is said and done."

The mayor's choice of words is important. While he expects the township ultimately will collect $1.4 million annually, the outlets between Route 42 and the Black Horse Pike will not pay property taxes in full for five years.

I bet residents in the sprawling Camden County suburb of 65,000 wouldn't mind receiving that sort of abatement. Particularly since the owner with a home assessed at $195,000 (the township average) recently saw his or her annual tax bill rise by $136.

"I got a 6.5 percent increase," says computer programmer John Reynolds, 59. "They hit you with that at the same time they're [giving] the outlet mall a tax abatement."

Says former township planning board Chairman Dennis Palmer, 60, "The burden of this project is on the taxpayers. And they're getting very little benefit."

A representative of the Simon Property Group, which is developing the project in a joint venture with Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), says Gloucester Premium Outlets will open in the summer of 2015.

The complex will feature more than 80 brand-name stores; create upward of 500 construction jobs and 800 permanent full- and part-time jobs; and offer space, akin to a town square, for public gatherings. There also will be 1,894 parking spaces.

"I think it's a good thing," says Tom Nguyen, 30, who lives across College Drive from the development site.

"I wish it were somewhere else," says Michelle Eahar, who lives in a tidy neighborhood on the west side of the pike across from the outlets. "Traffic is going to be horrible."

Mayer says the complex - which he likes to call the Gloucester Township Premium Outlets - will help put the town on the map. "It will be a catalyst for future economic development," particularly of the tired nearby stretch of the Black Horse Pike, he adds.

But abatements and other tax-related incentives often "end up subsidizing economic activity that would have happened with or without the subsidy," says Jon Whiten, deputy director of the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective.

"It seems unlikely that a multi-store retail project like this would fail or not happen without the abatement," Whiten adds.

Asked whether the abatement influenced the decision to build, Simon senior vice president Danielle De Vita says only that the company "chose the specific plot of land to develop Gloucester Premium Outlets because of its proximity to both the Atlantic City Expressway/Route 42 and the Black Horse Pike."

The township began to focus on the future of the former Jarnap Farm and adjacent wooded parcels after a subidiary of Cooper University Health Care, which was considering construction of suburban medical facilities, purchased 113 acres there for $4.6 million in 2005.

After the township declared the area in need of redevelopment, a "visioning" process gauged public preferences about what ought to be built there.

The 2010 opening of a "smart" interchange with Route 42 - with traffic-calming roundabouts and quick access to the old farm - made commercial development more viable.

The Gloucester Outlets project was announced last year. And on June 16, a spokeswoman says, Cooper sold 67 acres to Simon and PREIT for $13 million.

Gloucester Township politics have long been fractious, if not ferocious. The "Taking Back Our Township" page on Facebook, and public comment sections of local web publications, are full of complaints about "Team Mayer."

Mayer talks enthusiastically about attracting a hotel and of making Gloucester Township a "destination" where visitors will spend their money. Given that Simon and PREIT are major players, I would expect their project to have a far bigger impact than a run-of-the-mill strip mall.

Even more reason, then, for political leaders to make an extraordinary effort to accommodate not only developers and visitors but also the folks who call Gloucester Township home. Time for another "visioning" session?


kriordan@phillynews.com

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

www.inquirer.com/blinq

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