With downtown Audubon’s anchor tenant another eight or nine months off, businesses in the West Merchant Street district are doing some reshuffling as they wait out the calendar.
By Matt Skoufalos | August 2, 2017
There’s a couple of reasons it doesn’t take very long to walk the central business district in the borough of Audubon.
For one, it’s fairly small: the tiny, two-block radius around West Merchant Street is dotted with storefronts that dissolve into single-family homes fairly swiftly and seamlessly.
For another, a significant number of its shops are dark, awaiting new tenants or reflecting stalled projects within.
But talk to the merchants of Merchant Street about their prospects, and they’re far less likely to curse the darkness than they are bullish on the coming dawn.
With a new anchor tenant, microbrewery Red White and Brew, slated for a spring opening, many think the block is poised for a renewal. The only thing left to do, they say, is wait.
Ed Meehan, whose Salon Voi-La anchors the corner of West Merchant Street opposite the future home of the brewery, believes “it’s just a matter of time” before the downtown is on the upswing.
“I think a lot of people are hoping [that] when the brewery starts we’re going to get a little bit more foot traffic,” Meehan said. “I think after Christmas, this street should be re-thriving.”
Meehan thinks the block has “already had its decline,” and the brewery is “the beginning of the next thing.”
Refining the mix of businesses on it is another story, however.
There’s a saturation of service providers (there are five salons, including his, as well as a pair of dentists) within a half-block in either direction.
Meehan would like to see them offset by some shops and eateries that could retain foot traffic on the block.
“It’s one block long,” he said. “Can’t we do something with one block?
“Stay family- and kid-friendly; nothing high-end. Think about why the people are here and then go from there.”
That fits the bill for Lou Sarku of Angelo’s Pizzeria. After 12 years on Merchant Street, he’s ready to expand his business into the much-larger storefront recently vacated by Flowers By Renee. Sarku says the menu will be “the same, pretty much” as that of his current shop—pizzas, steaks, wings—but hopes a bigger dining area with table service will help grow the business.
“It’s a small block,” Sarku said. “I hope it’s going to be better with a brewery.”
Sarku thinks business owners on the block—or those who would join them—could use a little help from their landlords to keep rents manageable. He’d also like the borough government to be more involved, recruiting new businesses and helping their owners better navigate local regulations.
“They have to give a chance to the people,” he said.
“It’s hard. As soon as somebody opens, you see next door, it’s closing.
“I think the township has to be more flexible, more helping, and the landlords, when they rent the place, give a couple months free.”
Like Sarku, Tree House owners Randy and Tina Van Osten are also doubling down on the block.
The Van Ostens had planned to sell the business after Randy accepted a ministry position in Pitman, but never found the right buyer.
“We didn’t sell right away, and the response that we got—‘you can’t close, we love this place’—we don’t want to close,” Tina Van Osten said. “We’re going to try to see if we can make this happen, and I think it could be better for our development as a business.
“If somebody comes along that shares the vision, and they want to jump on board with us, we’re open to that,” she said. “But we’re not going to close the business; we’re not going to just sell it off to any old person that comes along.”
Van Osten believes Merchant Street has made some positive changes, although she’d welcome a greater variety of shops.
She also knows it could be difficult for retailers to compete with its “blue-collar community price point,” being sandwiched between the Walmart plaza off nearby Nicholson Road and the forthcoming Target location planned for Cuthbert Boulevard.
Van Osten thinks it’s up to property owners to recruit new tenants and the Audubon community to set the mood with more pop-up events. She also thinks an infusion of new business owners might generate greater collaboration.
“If you have fresh blood on the block, you might get more people that would come out and do something together, which would be positive,” Van Osten said. “All it really takes is somebody with an idea to get some people out.”
Alessandro Lascaro of Medford represents some of that fresh blood, having purchased Merchant’s Deli from owner Mary Beth Zimmerman. Lascaro, who said he’s worked his whole life in food and has always wanted to own a deli, will add some traditional Italian recipes to the existing menu.
“My passion is cooking,” he said. “I like to create things. Try to keep it simple, fresh, give the quality. If you use good products, you don’t need too many ingredients.”
Lascaro said regular customers will still be able to find their favorites, which he’ll supplement with imported Italian meats and cheeses as well as dry and canned specialty goods.
Like the rest of the block, he’ll be renovating slowly, piecemeal, as he finds his bearings.
“The street is cute, it’s nice; it can be better,” Lascaro said.
“It’s nice to be part of a small town, a small community that believes in it[self]. Hopefully it works out.”
Asked why he didn’t prefer to set up shop in his hometown of Medford, which also has a historic downtown business district, Lascaro said Audubon “looks like a town that wants to do more.
“I looked around, I spoke with some people,” he said. “They believe it, so why not? Why not here?”
That’s the attitude that Audubon Mayor John J. Ward hopes will catch on. Ward was recently re-elected this spring after running on a campaign that prioritized restoring the borough business district. He believes the problems Audubon faces next involve building extra capacity for its rebirth.
“I believe,” he said. “I think it’s going to happen here.”
“When Walmart came in, that was a fear that our downtown was going to suffer, and that’s what you read about,” Ward said. “Merchant Street has been fortunate to maintain some of our businesses; some of them have gone.
“I think with the [brewery]coming in, you’ll see a resurgence on the retail side, because there will be a lot more foot traffic on this block,” he said.
“We need to work with them to make sure we have the capacity.”
Ward has a short list of projects to support that build-out, but most require the participation of outside agencies, including the Camden County government and Conrail, which holds sway over the railroad-adjacent strip of land bordering the business district.
“One of the thoughts is to get parallel parking on the unit block of West Atlantic,” Ward said. “There may be opportunities for diagonal parking if it were one-way.”
The borough also recently received the results of a Camden County-led feasibility study to create a multi-use trail connecting the downtowns of Oaklyn, Audubon, and Haddon Heights. But that plan is contingent upon getting a right-of-way from Conrail, which the mayor knows could take years.
“We’re pushing to get our trail section done first because we think once you start that, and the other towns start to see it, it’ll help sell the whole concept,” Ward said.
As extra volume is added to the district, Ward said he wants to improve directional signage to help orient shoppers from larger roads like the nearby White Horse Pike.
He’s optimistic that enough changeover among the local businesses will lead to reforming a professional association that will help take the reins of its own growth.
“We’re a business-friendly municipality,” Ward said.
“Everyone here wants to see the businesses here succeed. They do good business because the local people keep going to them,” he said.
Ward’s fellow commissioners, Robert Lee and Rob Jakubowski, are hoping to facilitate new businesses by opening public conversations about the town and its goals. Jakubowski plans to compile some guidance for prospective property owners to help them navigate the procedural hurdles that could slow their projects.
“We’ll work with anybody,” Jakubowski said. “We want people to invest in the town so they want to stay here.”
Jakubowski believes the borough is battling its reputation as a Walmart community, which he said doesn’t represent what its business district should look and feel like. But he also said new management at the big-box retailer is “getting on that right page,” sponsoring activities with borough organizations and community groups.
“We’re going to get them more involved” Jakubowski said.
“We’re going to support your business; your business needs to support our community.”
Lee said the borough businesses know that they’re a benchmark of the health of the community, and want to be more involved in promoting the downtown block.
He pointed to the giveaways that many offered as a tie-in with Tuesday’s National Night Out celebration as evidence of their commitment to the town and its people.
“We are working to get the businesses to talk; to have common goals,” Lee said. “If we can sell the vision of this downtown, get everybody on board with that single vision, there’s momentum in mass.
“It’s going to be a long road, but this heads us in the right direction,” he said. “At least we have a direction.”
As for the brewers on whose shoulders the weight of these expectations is being placed, Red White and Brew co-owner Chris Baumann said he welcomes the challenge.
“I’ve always put pressure on myself,” Baumann said. “If you’re going to do it, do it right.
“We’re big about community and building something that’s more than just a brewery,” he said.
“We want to be meeting people and becoming part of a close-knit thing. I want people to walk in and be regulars.”
Baumann’s business partner, Stephen Picone, said he’s equally excited about their prospects.
A Lindenwold resident, Picone was most familiar with Audubon because of The Tree House, and was excited when he discovered that the bank building in which the brewery will be situated was on the same block.
“I was like, ‘I know that place, I love that strip, I go there all the time,’” Picone said. “It’s a great building. It’s a great downtown area.”
He believes Red White and Brew will complement the hometown feel that he said best describes the block.
“We want this to be a comfortable place for people to come in, have a couple drinks, hang out, get to know us, get to know the town,” Picone said.
“We really just want it to be a friendly, welcoming place that people want to visit.”
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