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At the Crossroads in South Jersey: Business Booms in Collingswood, Haddon Twp.






Driving south along Cuthbert Boulevard in South Jersey, you'll pass several major arteries speeding you to various points -- and a few jughandles. But at the intersection of Cuthbert and Haddon Avenue, you've reached a true crossroads: two communities with two very different approaches to growth, depending on how you turn the steering wheel when the light turns green. One is a tight-knit community where life's necessities and many of its pleasures are easily found within walking distance. The other, a destination filled with a variety of cuisines and plenty of personality. But it isn't always night and day with these two towns, as they share more than just a classic main street.

Turn Left Haddon Township
Compared to neighbors Haddonfield and Collingswood, Haddon Township definitely has a small town feel, and it's an identity that the community has embraced. And like many small towns, when one of Haddon Township's most well-known businesses, the Dydee Diaper Wash Company, shuttered its doors over two decades ago, it impacted the community greatly, both with loss of local jobs and the blight of an abandoned building in a prominent location near the center of town. But Haddon Township's 15,000 residents have continued to embrace its small town moniker as a draw for South Jersey communities well within driving distance.

"A small town feel is part of our personality. It what makes us unique," says Kate Burns, Executive Director of Haddon Township's Business Improvement Districts. "Haddon Township has everything you need on a day to day basis.

"You can pick up pasta at Severino's, a bottle of wine at Cook's, a cake at McMillian's, party favors at Westmont Party and not leave a block. That's why most of our businesses have been successful."

And while the butcher just retired, and nobody really makes candlesticks anymore, the baker, McMillan's Bakery, has been around for 70 years. Residents support their service-oriented businesses from the local hardware store, the dry cleaners and everything else in-between to the point that they become institutions.

The reason? Many of the people who work in Haddon Township tend to live right in the community, adding more incentives to support their businesses.

"They're your friends, your neighbors," explains Burns. "It adds to the small town feel."

That's the case for Michelle Gladden, who has lived in town for 13 years. She and her husband George are owners of Sea-lect Seafood in Maple Shade. They're opening an additional store in Haddon Township at the former location of Butcher's Bloc this month and hope to piggyback their growth along with the town's redevelopment efforts, including the multi-use project currently in the works for the Dydee Diaper site and the recently announced $50,000 grant for a comprehensive study on the old Westmont Theatre, Haddon Township's iconic landmark.

"It's nice to bring the business close to home," says Gladden. "Haddon Township is growing. The curb appeal is awesome. It's ideal for the type of business that we do. It's an incredible opportunity."

Haddon Township's business approach shows up at the cash register. According to data compiled by CLRsearch.com from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census, Haddon Township conducted $114,490,000 in retail sales last year. Haddon Township also keeps pace with its neighboring towns through innovative events and community-focused activities. Coinciding with Philly Beer Week, the Haddon Pub Fest offers a variety of craft beers and microbrews at eight of the township's bar and restaurants. Organically speaking, the Westmont Farmers Market offers a bounty of healthy and locally grown food to the surrounding communities.

Turn Right Collingswood
Collingswood has seen quite the resurgence in recent years. Efforts to revitalize the town's main street struggled in the 1980s, and several troubled areas like the old Sutton Towers tarnished the town's image as a clean cut community. But hard work and business-savvy moves in the 90s, including the transformation of Sutton Towers into the upscale Parkview Apartments, helped develop Collingswood's image into a vibrant community. A decade ago, Collingswood residents had to leave town for fine dining. Today, there are over 20 restaurants that have caught South Jersey's attention.

"The restaurant row is our anchor," says Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley. "It's key to our development and there are more restaurants coming in."

One such new arrival is El Sitio, a restaurant featuring South American cuisine that has a counterpart in Ecuador. Francisco Cabrera and his wife Cecelia came to the U.S. three years ago and searched for the perfect spot to offer their Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Argentinean fare. They chose Collingswood and have been in business along Haddon Avenue for the past year.

"We did a lot of research on where to build the restaurant," says Cabrera. "We felt the best place to be was Collingswood. El Sitio is a family-oriented restaurant, and we wanted to find a place where family and friends could come together and have fun and talk, just like in Ecuador."

And it's not just El Sitio. As a general rule, Collingswood likes to keep it fun and works hard to infuse that light-hearted attitude into its events and approach to business growth.

"The hallmark is to keep it fun," adds Maley. "When people have a good time, they tend to want to come back."

Fun is a major reason why McGarry's Jewelers is opening its doors along Haddon Avenue at the end of April. The fine jewelry store has been part of Old City Philadelphia for over 150 years. In fact, the first store was moved to build the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Their search for a second location took across that same bridge into Collingswood.

"Collingswood is a vibrant town with a lot going on that we could have fun in and they could enjoy us," says Tracy Eck-O'Donnell, owner of Mc Garry's. "We wanted there to be activity. We wanted something going on. The one thing we don't have in Philadelphia is that we don't have a night venue. Collingswood has many events that go on, from car shows to book fairs, that we consider fun. And we wanted to be a part of that."

Collingswood has also embraced ambitious initiatives that involve transit-oriented development and New Urbanism, a concept that promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities. The main example is the town's Lumber Yard condominium project, a mixed-use redevelopment initiative on Haddon Avenue that includes 119 residential units and 19 commercial units within blocks of the Collingswood PATCO station.

"We're getting near the end of this five-year project and we're seeing good signs. We sold 50 units before the economy changed and now traffic and sales have picked up," adds Maley.

Connected by More Than Just Haddon Ave.
Haddon Township and Collingswood share more than Haddon Avenue, a road perfect for creating a walkable downtown, key to any redevelopment efforts. Both town use Business Improvement Districts -- or BIDs -- to help fuel growth. Within specified areas, merchants agree to a special tax or fee that is solely allocated to provide added services from streetscape improvements to consumer-based marketing campaigns.

"With state aid getting cut and local governments turning to shared services, BIDs are great revitalization tool that better the whole town," explains Burns.

Says Maley: "BIDs are an overlay to a highly successful business association. It's a funding tool for a highly active business community."

Collngswood's downtown BID has been in existence since 1999. Haddon Township's BIDs are relatively new and focus on two different areas: the Westmont/Downtown Business District and the South of Haddon District or SoHa for short, which is the arts and business district which encompasses White Horse Pike and Cuthbert Blvd.

The businesses in those areas have bought into the BIDs as an investment in not only themselves, but their community. In fact, Christine Hopkins, changed the name of her salon to Salon SoHa to support that effort.

"In the SoHa area, we have many of the elements of an arts district that has organically evolved. It's an identity we're trying to perpetuate," explains Hopkins. "We decided to be part of the area's rebranding effort, so we changed our name."

Both communities also leverage their proximity to the PATCO High Speed Line. The Collingswood Station is the source of PATCO's largest walkup customer base, making the development of that area part of the town's long-term goals.

"With the Speed Line, people who live in the city have a straight shot into our town," says Gladden. "They're a different type of clientele that we're getting because of the PATCO station."

So as you head back on to Cuthbert Boulevard, make your way to the Ben Franklin Bridge, or hop on the High Speed Line, you'll be content in your knowledge that regardless of which way you turned on Haddon Avenue, you've just experienced South Jersey at its finest -- without having to fight shore traffic.

FRANK SINATRA
is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Pennsauken, N.J. Send feedback here.

PHOTOS:


Francisco Cabrera and daughter Carolina Cabrera, owners of  EL Sitio in the heart of Collingswood

Collingswood's restaurant district

Christine Hopkins, owner of Salon Soha in Haddon Township

Christine in her Salon

SoHa

All photographs by EDDY MARENCO





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