Michael Marciante, the 32-year-old executive director of the Partnership for Haddonfield is bringing a youthful energy to the borough downtown as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic doldrums.
By Matt Skoufalos | April 20, 2022
At the end of 2021, right before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) Omicron variant ripped through South Jersey, businesses in its Main Street shopping districts were preparing for the most important months of their calendar year.
In Haddonfield, the season was marked with traditional events like carriage rides and candlelight shopping throughout its historic district.
While shoppers weaved through crowded sidewalks and strolled with their packages, right there in the middle of the action was 32-year-old Michael Marciante, newly added to the rolls of the Partnership for Haddonfield (PFH), the business arm of its downtown Business Improvement District (BID).
Marciante, a native of south Trenton, had recently given up a marketing career in the textile arts events industry when the pandemic shifted those trade shows to virtual presentations. He’d initially applied with the Borough of Haddonfield for a public information officer (PIO) position with its municipal government, but when PFH learned of his background in business-to-business marketing, the organization invited him to interview for a newly created leadership role.
Marciante was hired in November, and by January, had begun discussions around what he terms as the “revisualization” of PFH, starting with an update of the organizational bylaws to reflect the creation of his position of executive director.
“We had a lot of professionals leave, staff members retire, and things were operating on a volunteer basis, which is not sustainable,” Marciante said.
“We’re moving in the right direction. It’s just a matter of nailing down that direction.”
As the borough downtown navigates its post-pandemic course, Marciante is undertaking an extensive strategic review of PFH activities and events for the calendar year.
His initial plan involves focusing first on familiar favorites (the Haddonfield Crafts and Fine Arts Festival, Fall Festival, and holiday candlelight shopping), and supplementing them with other, timely novelties (like the Earth Day reusable bag giveaway, coming up April 22 in cooperation with Sustainable Haddonfield.)
But growing beyond those will involve making good use of the physical infrastructure in the borough, like the pedestrian walkways at Lantern Lane and King’s Court, as well as contemplating programming and events that complement its brick-and-mortar install base.
“A lot of downtowns don’t have the retail success rate of Haddonfield, but there’s a way to have experiential events that make the downtown successful and make the storefronts successful at the same time,” Marciante said.
“We’ve relied so much on our retailers to do the lift; a lot of them are eager to do it and do a great job,” he said. “How do we make these events, and how do we make them better? I want to make sure we do the same job, and find ways to improve it.”
At the same time as he’s focusing on building a customer-facing calendar, Marciante is working on in-group events among local business owners to help build cohesion as a network. He credits Morgan Falasca of Downtown Cookies with coordinating the initial networking events and Matt Cowperthwaite of Republic Bank with heading up the PFH networking committee.
Perhaps most importantly, the meet-ups have helped Marciante to deepen his understanding of the people for whom he’s working, leaning on the underlying narratives that connect them.
“I have a storyteller’s mind; I keep the characters straight,” he said. “Julie [Beddingfield, of Inkwood Books] was a lawyer. Bob [Hochgertel, of King’s Road Brewing] was a graphic designer. Andrea [Marcellé, of Maison Marcellé] was in marketing.
“A lot of them are in their passion projects,” Marciante said. “Their passion should be complemented by somebody who’s not only paid, but who cares.”
In addition to building consensus among business owners, Marciante said he’s working to incorporate the perspectives of local landlords in guiding the direction of PFH. Whether communicating with them about events, parking, or retail recruitment opportunities, he believes that a tighter integration of their concerns with those of the business owners to whom they rent is meaningful to consider.
“It’s just good to get their feedback, not only as landlords, but as people who are invested in the town, and who want to be active,” he said.
Likewise, Marciante said he’s also working to learn more about the numerous Haddonfield civic groups and local nonprofits, the better to fold in their interests into the programming he plans to coordinate in the borough downtown.
“There’s always been this disconnect between the partnership and the other nonprofits,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault, I just think that people don’t have the time and effort to understand it.”
On a broader scale, Marciante is working to develop the general brand of downtown Haddonfield, starting with his own definition of it, and exploring ways to communicate what the borough economy means in a local context. He believes that knowing more about individual business owners in the district is key to developing that representation.
“Each one of these businesses has their own unique product and service,” Marciante said. “Making sure they’re represented in our [PFH] brand is important. I want to make sure that it looks as though it’s something that’s worth it for them to participate and buy into.
“We have an icon, a logo, a website, but we don’t have a consistent brand that we’re familiar with,” he said. “There’s something out there that’s going to represent us; if there’s a way to nail down that brand, I think it would be beneficial for the whole town.”
To Marciante, a lot of that branding will turn on the welcoming elements of Haddonfield as a safe, clean, and walkable shopping district; equally, he hopes to tie its significance as a historic community to that retail experience.
Caravelli’s Barber Shop has operated in Haddonfield for a century under different owners. Home goods retailer Patricia of Mullica Hill has been in business for 60 years, 40 of them in Haddonfield. Similarly, Duffy’s Fine Chocolates, which started in Gloucester City in 1922, has occupied a King’s Highway storefront since 2015. Jay West Bridal dates back to 1968, and its neighbor across the street, The Happy Hippo Toys, has clocked more than 40 years in the borough.
“We don’t only have historic places, we have historic businesses,” Marciante said. “And just because things have changed doesn’t mean that businesses aren’t changing with them. I feel like my job is to complement their efforts, and to make parallel efforts, and to listen to concerns about how we can make our events more experiential.”
Marciante’s willingness to listen and interest in soliciting feedback from the businesses for which he works represents a marked departure from the prior way PFH has operated, Beddingfield said.
“He’s trying to get to know people,” she said.
“He’s soliciting feedback, and sending out surveys after various events.
“For years, I have said, ‘How do we know what the businesses are thinking if we’re not asking?’” Beddingfield said.
“It’s one thing to be receiving input, it’s another thing to be soliciting it.”
Beddingfield described Marciante’s approach as a necessary course correction in the post-pandemic economic landscape, not least of all because he’s demonstrated a willingness to be physically present in his role.
When Beddingfield was named the Haddonfield Civic Association Citizen of the Year for 2022, Marciante ferried a congratulatory card throughout the district, collecting signatures and well wishes from her fellow business owners. She was struck as much by the effort behind his legwork as she was by the gesture itself.
“He’s starting a career, and he’s enthusiastic, and I think he has a lot of ideas and he’s willing to do what it takes,” Beddingfield said. “He’s making the effort that needs to be made.”
Marcello De Feo, whose Allora Hospitality Management group oversees eateries The Fare Porter and Valente’s Cucina in Haddonfield, said he appreciates Marciante’s responsiveness to the concerns of business owners as well as his visible presence in the community.
“He’s out there on the streets,” De Feo said. “He’s stopping in all the businesses. He’s come in and eaten a few times. He’s very responsive to texts and calls.
“I feel that there’s a lot more engagement and interaction between businesses and the borough right now,” he said. “I can’t tell you if it’s the partnership itself, or Michael, or the new commissioners, or everything, but it feels like there’s a new energy in town, and it feels like there’s a little bit more support.”
It hasn’t always been the case. A few years ago, when De Feo helped establish the Haddonfield Food and Beverage Collective as a way of building a community of support for the borough food and beverage businesses, he recalled that his fellow restaurateurs “expressed a sense of frustration with the borough, with the commissioners, with the Partnership.”
“They felt that they weren’t being supported,” De Feo said.
“That wasn’t the intent of it, and that wasn’t where I was trying to push things, but people felt the need to speak up and voice their frustrations.”
Nowadays, he said, “It feels like somebody’s listening, and not just listening, but working towards change to make things happen.
“When the business owners see that the administration is more invested in the community, they become more invested in the businesses and the community too,” De Feo said.
Andrea Ranno, whose business, The Paper Trail, has just entered its 17th year in Haddonfield, said she thinks the borough BID is “seeing a shift for the better” since creating the executive director position that Marciante holds.
“We so needed it,” Ranno said. “He’s a cheerleader for our downtown. I see him every day, so I feel like he’s hitting the streets and going into stores. I’m very happy with what we’ve been doing so far.”
To Ranno, Marciante’s youth adds an element of energy and savvy to the marketing work he does, especially when it comes to the efforts he’s made to coordinate consistency among social media messaging in town.
“We travel a lot, and I always seek out a downtown and their social media page,” Ranno said. “I love when towns have cohesive social media. That’s one thing that we could have stepped up on, and we are actively doing that now. When he took it over, it is definitely a step in the right direction.”
Hochgertel said that although prior leaders within the BID benefitted Haddonfield businesses during their times of service, the change in the composition of the borough downtown reflects differences in their programming needs as well.
“We used to be primarily a retail town with a few restaurants,” Hochgertel said. “We have probably 50 percent more restaurants than we did five years ago, and as a result of that, there are different crowds in town at different times.
“Restaurants are open later, and those retailers that have adjusted their hours to keep with the new traffic patterns are seeing the benefits as well,” he said.
“During COVID, downtown Haddonfield looked like a robust little European town with lights strung and people dining on the sidewalk. We have continued to carry those energies forward.
“It was a new time for a new person with a new direction,” Hochgertel said. “[Marciante]’s proven in the short time that he’s been here that he’s willing to roll up his sleeves and do what’s needed.”
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