A mix of downtown cultural destination and launchpad for the local shopping district, the historic railway structure once again sits at the crossroads of gathering communities.
By Matt Skoufalos
To Merchantville Mayor Ted Brennan, the Station cafe is the keystone to redevelopment in the heart of his borough’s business district.
“For a long period of time, it’s just been corporate offices,” which provide ratables, but which don’t offer a unique cultural aspect, Brennan said.
Adding a fine and performing arts space at the center of the borough downtown, however; that’s something he can work with.
Presently, Merchantville is considering a handful of redevelopment concepts from the Ragan Design Group “for the triangular area defined by Centre, Park, and Chestnut,” Streets. (The Station sits at the corner of Centre and Park.)
Municipal priorities for the space include creating a downtown destination “with architectural character” that must be “financially feasible” for developers and “pedestrian-oriented” while “providing adequate parking.”
Brennan said proposals include “a mix of infill on Centre Street, retail and apartments on Park, [and]a live performance courtyard.”
The Station already offers up one of its porches for musicians at the Merchantville [Farmers] Market Off-Centre, which sets up in its parking lot on Saturdays.
“We’re really at the infancy of the concepts, but people want a public space where they can congregate,” Brennan said; “a mix of these types of uses.”
“It’s the key to a redevelopment triangle we’ve tried to redevelop a number of times,” Brennan said. “People want opportunities for shopping, live music, events, etc.”
Brennan is bullish on the local economy, noting that at least 10 new businesses have opened in Merchantville within the past six months. Katherine and Ato Swann’s Duck Duck Goose toy store, which relocated to Merchantville from Collingswood this year, is one of them.
Katherine Swann also serves alongside Brennan on the borough council; she and Ato have partnered with husband-and-wife team Mat and Nicole Eiland to open the cafe.
“There are a number of [Merchantville] residents that own businesses [here],” Brennan said. “We need to provide them reasons to invest in town.”
‘Something the community can get behind’
The oil paintings of Oaklyn artist Matt Green are hanging on the first-floor walls of the café.
Although his work is shown in galleries from Philadelphia to New York, Green said there’s nothing like making it accessible to his children and neighbors.
“I love that there’s a local arts scene bringing energy and freshness to town,” Green said. “It’s a place to display in a community where I live.”
Nicole Eiland said audiences will be treated to art classes and exhibitions in the gallery space and live performances downstairs, from poetry slams to comedians to bands.
“We’ve really tried to get all the different arts in,” she said.
At the Tuesday grand opening of the cafe, a Philadelphia elementary school art teacher who identified herself only as Sarah, regarded the paintings of Merchantville Montessori School students that lined the walls upstairs.
A former member of the Merchantville artist collective 13 North Gallery, she said,“It’s amazing to see how much the building has changed.
“It’s not just a business, but something the community can get behind,” she said; “inspiring people through the arts.”
That synchronicity is also apparent to photographer Cara Kelii, who moved her business, Kidz Shotz, from its Palmyra storefront into The Station. The 12-year Merchantville resident said she is excited to be doing business out of her hometown and interacting with its local families.
‘Love for the community’
Coffee at The Station is roasted onsite by Mt. Laurel resident Rich Curry, whose eponymous Micro Roast started at the Cherry Hill Whole Foods Hatchery incubator before generating enough demand for a retail space.
In his search for a storefront café, Curry’s realtor introduced him to the Eilands and the Swanns. The setup “has exceeded my expectations,” he said.
The local market for small-batch, artisan coffee is bustling, Curry said. He sees his niche as producing $12 pounds of custom-blended, low-acidity beans that he will roast on demand for Station customers.
“I’m trying to live up to the quality of the local [coffee]economy,” Curry said. “The Eilands and the Swanns have offered me a golden opportunity.”
Rounding out the drink menu at the café are fruit smoothies, lemonade, and juices; food service will include crepes, panini, and coffee-shop sweets that are friendly to those with restrictive diets.
The rehabilitation of the space took “a lot of hours, a lot of time, a little bit of blood, [and]a few tears,” said Ato Swann, but it was “done out of love for the community.
“I’m feeling fully entrenched,” he said. “Merchantville is where I want to live the rest of my life; the place where I’m raising my children.
“I’m doing my best to make it the place where I want to be.”