EHT news

Egg Harbor Township Municipal Building

Laura Stetser

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Township officials hope a private grant could help change the face of one of its retail corridors and potentially improve life for its residents.

Among the proposals on the table is a plan to create a town center along the Black Horse Pike. Another would be to create a mixed-use zone, to include retail and residential uses, in a retail development that includes a number of vacant stores.

Representatives of Bloomberg Philanthropies cold-called the township about the opportunity, according to township Administrator Peter Miller. The organization, founded by billionaire investor and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, wanted to hear the township’s ideas to improve the quality of life.

On the line could be at least $100,000 to work on plans and potentially far more toward bringing them to fruition. Miller said 300 towns will get the planning grants, and representatives of the philanthropic group plan to sit down with township officials later this month.

No one from Bloomberg Philanthropies immediately responded to an emailed request for comment.

“Bloomberg Philanthropies has a whole bunch of money that they want to spend, and one of the things that they want to do is partner with municipalities to brainstorm to come up with better ways to do things,” Miller told Township Committee at its Sept. 6 meeting. “Better ways to grow our community, make it more sustainable, to make it better for the people who live in the community. They refer to it as the mayor’s challenge.”

Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough asked if the grants could help with improvements in the township, or if it would be for design and planning, what is sometimes known as ‘soft money.’

“There’s no brick and mortar money. They’re not going to build anything,” answered Miller. But Matthew von der Hayden, the township’s deputy administrator, said if the township is chosen for a grant, and proceeds through the entire process, there is a chance it could get one of four $1 million grants or one $5 million grant to complete the proposal.

According to Miller, Bloomberg Philanthropies wants all-hands-on-deck for a daylong meeting in the township Sept. 22.

“They want 15 people sitting there at the same time,” he told committee. “I don’t think I can get 15 people here the whole day to do that.”

He suggested smaller groups meeting in two sessions, one in the morning, another after lunch.

Township engineer James Mott suggested that it might be worthwhile to host a tour of the township so the crew from Bloomberg Philanthropies would understand the challenges the municipality faces, an idea McCullough seized on at the meeting.

“This is an unusual town. You’ve got the marina area, you’ve got the Scullville area. Take them to West Atlantic City,” he said, suggesting the tour should take place before the meeting. “At least then they have an idea that this is a little more complicated than going into Margate or going into Pleasantville or going into Atlantic City. This town is so different from one area to the next.”

Miller said it seemed that the organization had a specific outline for the meeting they wanted to follow, saying “it’s their horse and pony show,” but added that von der Hayden would communicate with them to finalize plans.

“They call it an accelerator workshop, and they have specific materials that they want to walk you through,” said von der Hayden. “Let’s say it was the mixed-use idea. They want to walk you through to make sure that you’ve vetted the idea. I could suggest maybe I could take them around at the end.”

Miller indicated Bloomberg Philanthropies wanted to fund projects that could be applied to other towns.

“They want something that can be developed that can be used for other people. That’s why we looked at mixed use, free-form zoning, green roads, things of that nature, because those things have applicability to other municipalities, not just our area,” Miller said.

Among the ideas he wants to bring to the table is a proposal for a mixed-use zoning for the Cardiff Power Center on the Black Horse Pike. Once home to several national stores, the center has seen many of its high-profile tenants close over the years, some after the national chains went bankrupt, including Bradley’s department store.

Recently, the International Academy of Atlantic City Charter School opened at the center, and there remain some successful businesses there, including Foreman Mills and Big Lots. But several of the large retail units remain vacant.

A mixed-use zone, which would allow residential and retail units in the same zone, might be a way to revitalize the area, Miller said after the meeting. Advocates of that style of zoning say it spurs development and can make for a livable, pedestrian-friendly center, where residents can easily walk to shops and restaurants.

Other ideas Miller wants to pursue include a program to bring more green areas to the township, including planting trees to create buffers between residences and traffic, and a drive to create a town center for the sprawling township, which as the mayor pointed out includes widely disparate communities and neighborhoods across close to 75 square miles. 

“We have no center of town,” Miller said in an interview after Wednesday’s meeting. “You could ask 10 people where is the center of town, and get seven or eight different answers.”

While some of the barrier island communities and other townships have a downtown, which often includes the municipal hall, Egg Harbor Township for most of its history was a rural community. The retail centers were developed long after cars were commonplace, and are often away from residential areas. Township Hall is along a quiet road in the Bargaintown section, in an area Miller agreed few would describe as the town center.

Part of the idea he wants to explore with Bloomberg Philanthropies would be to make the area along the Black Horse Pike from the Garden State Parkway to Lincoln a town center, to include Harbor Square (once known as Shore Mall), Cardiff Power Center and the Cardiff Plaza Shopping Center.

Plans are in the nascent stage at this point, he said, and he would need to get the property owners on board with the idea, but he hopes Bloomberg Philanthropies may be able to help.