Mayor Ted Brennan also announced plans to ease the financial burden on residents for sidewalk repairs, revamp the borough leaf collection program, and work to help the borough better tell its story.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 9, 2017
“People stumble upon Merchantville,” said Mayor Ted Brennan.
“We’ve been fortunate to be found at times.”
For all the borough has to offer, Brennan said Merchantville could stand to do a better job touting its virtues.
Originally founded as a Philadelphia summer vacation community, the little shade tree borough has a lot of historic character and a nascent local business community that has gotten a boost in recent years.
The Station Café, with its unique mix of coffee shop and arts center, also hosts the borough farmers market, and has become “a nice little cornerstone business,” Brennan said. Farther up the street, Eclipse Brewing, which took up shop in a former EMS building, offers craft beer at the edge of the central business district.
The borough has also added a satellite Aster’s Florist location, the health-centered Juice Bar, and niche boutiques like the Play With This toy shop and Spirit to Sole Connection reflexology practice, all of which complement longtime anchor tenants like Blue Monkey Tavern and McFarlan’s Market.
Nonetheless Merchantville has struggled to tout these successes, which have, in many ways, been counterbalanced by the closure of restaurants like Café Bella Vita, which Brennan described as “a staple of the community for years”; the shuttering of Councilwoman Katherine Swann’s Duck Duck Goose toy shop; and the death of Al Segrest, longtime owner of The Clip Joint hair salon (which closed shortly thereafter, and was recently reopened by family members).
“We need to do a better job getting our message out there,” Brennan said. “It’s up to us to market the town and show people what we have.”
Although the borough government and business community have held discussions about the possibility of creating a business improvement district (BID) or a special improvement district (SID), the mayor said Merchantville still needs to bolster its economic base to ease the burden of any SID or BID levy that would come from that.
He hopes to revisit the issue in 2017 to make “a concentrated effort to show off what Merchantville has to offer.”
Swann will take on a greater role in coordinating the Merchantville Business and Professional Association (BPA), which Brennan said can help improve communication between the town’s business community and local government while coordinating efforts to elevate the profile of the shopping district.
“If we have successful businesses in town, they build off each other,” he said. “If I don’t have a group to talk to, I’m basically trying to meet the needs of 20 different entities at one point. With the enhanced structure of a BPA, we may be able to put that in place in 2017.
“I do believe that [a BID]would help to enhance the downtown and provide opportunity to businesses to improve facades; to improve the look and the feel of the downtown district,” Brennan said. “I believe that investment is necessary for success in the downtown business district, [and the]combination of a BID and the redevelopment area coming online is what’s needed for the borough to continue to flourish.”
Redevelopment to get into gear
The business district is also overdue for a key expansion to plug a significant hole in its center.
Last year, Merchantville approved a redevelopment concept for the two-acre downtown triangle framed by East Park Avenue, East Chestnut Avenue, and South Center Street.
In the summer of 2016, demolition began to clear part of the abandoned buildings from the lot. Since then, however, the project has stalled. Brennan said the borough had fielded some interest from developers in the shuttered PNC Bank building, but no project ever materialized.
In light of the slowdown, the mayor said the borough is likely to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to redevelop the entire site. Brennan also is hopeful that Merchantville might win a $900,000 Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to dedicate to the project.
“That would include the entire pedestrian walkway, any environmental issues that might be there; design, inspection, construction, everything,” he said. “We’re hopeful that if we can get that grant we’ll be that much more attractive to a developer who will not have to go out-of-pocket for those public space elements.”
Merchantville will hear about the TAP grant in April, Brennan said; if everything comes together, he hopes the project can break ground in spring 2018. If Merchantville can’t find a lone developer for the entire parcel through the RFP process, he said the borough is “not averse to a piecemeal approach” with a few of them.
“It’s been my primary focus,” Brennan said. “It will remain my primary focus.”
Along with the central redevelopment area, Brennan said the local government would like to take a look at the Maple Avenue corridor to “freshen up” that entrance to the borough and attract businesses within walking distance of its residents.
“We have a hard-working population on that side of town who, although Merchantville’s not very large, at times have been lost throughout the history of town,” he said.
“I think the West end needs a light shined on it because it’s a nice little area. We need to understand and address some of the needs with regard to parking, services, business in that area.”
Sharing the burden of local services
Brennan said redevelopment projects can help “stabilize the tax burdens in town,” and give the local government additional flexibility in providing services—including leaf collection, which has been a particular bugaboo.
Since the borough restructured its Department of Public Works in 2009, privatizing a number of its local services, residents have been asked to bag their leaves for pickup.
Brennan said the move was made with the intention of limiting local dependence on leaf collection equipment and hoping to offer the flexibility “to do leaf collection when it was convenient for them, not on the borough’s schedule.”
However, the policy has met with complications, not the least of which is the burden it places on seniors who are responsible for the chore. Brennan said that Councilman Andrew McLoone “is going to take a look at things and try to come up with a new way for us to approach the leaf issue.
“Because we value our shade trees so much, it’s important that we partner with the residents,” Brennan said. “We need to take a practical approach to determine what services we can provide to residents.”
The mayor’s view of shared responsibility among taxpayers and the local government is also reflected in Merchantville’s sidewalk repair program, another attempt to address the impact of its shade trees. Brennan said a prior grant program helped 42 taxpayers—everyone who applied for the local aid package—cover half the costs of improvements on “problem properties.
“We understand the shared vision of these street trees and what the character of the borough has been for a very long time,” he said.
“While, traditionally, sidewalks have been solely the burden of residents, we want to utilize the borrowing power of the borough to help residents finance these necessary improvements.”
This year, Brennan said Merchantville is offering an opportunity for residents to finance sidewalk improvements over a five-year span through a special assessment. By borrowing through a bond anticipation note (BAN), the borough will enable individual property owners to spread out the cost of repairs without burdening the entire tax base. The mechanism also contains legal protections that lien properties for owners who move within the five-year repayment period.
“While we aren’t subsidizing it, we are giving the residents an opportunity to make the necessary improvements, whether it’s as a result of a hazard in front of their house or they need to sell their house, and it will make Merchantville eminently more walkable,” Brennan said.
“We think this is a good compromise,” he said. “We want the trees, and we want sidewalks to be improved.”
Brennan believes small adjustments like these can help Merchantville reposition itself as a place for more families to relocate. He pointed to the extensive redevelopment of the Camden City business community as a potential influence: the attractiveness of Merchantville could be a motivator for people who will go to work in the city and want to shorten their commutes home.
“It’s convenient to the city and the commitment there, and we are a walkable, suburban town that is close-knit, and it’s so small that it feels like everybody’s arms are around each other,” Brennan said.
“You’re welcomed to the community and you can get everything you need.”
As its redevelopment projects resolve and the borough continues to take strides to grow its business community, Merchantville is also gearing up for its sesquicentennial in 2024.
Brennan is hopeful that his visions for the growth of the community will come to fruition in time for the 150th anniversary celebration.
“We’re geared towards moving the town forward and providing opportunity and services to residents that they expect,” he said.
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