From re-launching its rec center to restocking its calendar of events, the borough of Audubon is focusing on community development in the months ahead.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 14, 2019
2019: the Year Ahead is a series of conversations with local leaders about planning and priorities for the next 12 months. In this installment, we spoke with Audubon Mayor John J. Ward.
Rec’s in Effect
The biggest project in town involves the long-in-coming resurrection of the community recreation center.
Then, architects and engineers broke the news that the structure wasn’t capable of being renovated sufficiently. Plans to build a new structure by Green Wave Park were scuttled due to concerns from residents about its impact on the neighborhood.
Finally, borough commissioners decided to raze the structure and erect a $1.4-million community center on the site of the former building.
That tear-down began in late 2018, and Ward believes the new building could open as early as late summer 2019.
The decision to pursue the project “didn’t come lightly,” Ward said, but when finished, commissioners believe the facility can be “a center point that the whole community can enjoy.
“After three, four, five years, we couldn’t get there with the amount of money we raised,” the mayor said.
“The commissioners evaluated the needs we had for our community, and realized we couldn’t renovate the old building.”
The new rec center will be a true community center, housing large audiences for town-wide events, from live performances to organizational meetings. Once the structure is in place, Ward said commissioners want to enhance the grounds to support other uses.
They will solicit grants to add public-use exercise stations for outdoor workouts, as well as infrastructure to create a splash park, the better to host summertime events.
“You could watch your kids play hockey or basketball in a rec league while the little ones play in the splash park,” Ward said.
As the new rec center comes online, the borough will continue to host more community events.
“We try to do them in the business district, but we’re limited to what we can do there,” Ward said.
“We hope to do more at the rec center when it’s completed,” he said.
“We want the town to come out and spend an evening [together].”
The West Merchant Street business district is also primed to accept some new additions this year, including the (tentative) late summer opening of the Red White and Brew microbrewery.
“We’re looking forward to that,” Ward said.
If the brewery takes off, there’s also the potential for a new traffic pattern to emerge around it. The municipal and county governments have had preliminary discussions about making East and West Atlantic Avenues one-way streets near the downtown to ease congestion, but Ward said those have been back-burnered until the need arises.
Audubon is also playing a long game with the “Rails With Trails” proposal that would link neighboring Haddon Heights and Oaklyn via a multi-use path along the Atlantic Avenue Conrail line. The borough has completed its piece of the design, and Ward said the wait will continue until Conrail decides to move on it.
“We keep pushing it,” he said. “It’s all hypothetical until we get it approved. We’re still hopeful that that’s going to happen.”
Outside of the downtown business district, Ward said the big-box-centric Audubon Crossings shopping center is almost fully tenant-occupied.
“The whole strip of stores was empty, but thank God, they’re filled now,” he said.
Focus on finance
Similarly, the borough continues to press forward with its vacant property management program.
Ward said that by putting pressure on banks, several properties already have found their way back on the market.
“Through persistence, they got the banks to sell, and that was the goal of the program,” the mayor said. “Some had been vacant for five years.
“We still have issues with high grass in the summer time, but after a few calls, we get that taken care of,” he said. “We’re going to continue doing it.
“As long as there are vacant properties, we’re going to have an office managing that,” Ward said.
As commissioners enter budget season, Ward also said they’re working to limit any potential tax increase while still delivering local services. The 2019 municipal budget will also include an ordinance for capital improvements like road repairs and public works equipment.
Only about 20 percent of every dollar collected is retained for local use, and “everything you get from the smallest piece of the pie is pretty amazing,” the mayor said.
“We’re in the middle of our process to whittle it down and see what the impact might be,” he said. “If there is an increase, we’re very cognizant that it’s a minimal increase. We’ll do everything we can.”
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