4/01/2006

Pennsauken Mart's Closure: Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, 1/31/06

Editorial

A not-grand plan had too many losers

The hardworking merchants of Pennsauken Mart deserved better than to be evicted for a fuzzy vision that could just as easily fade into oblivion.

The 50-year-old mart closed Sunday after a five-year battle over the Camden County Improvement Authority's plans to redevelop the site for homes and businesses where Routes 73, 130 and 90 intersect.

The merchants, who are renters, not property owners, were never in a position of power. But they paid taxes and had devoted customers (who turned out in droves over the weekend to say good-bye). The survivors in the quirky kiosks deserved a smoother transition to new storefronts, if Camden County, indeed, envisioned redeveloping the county's northwestern gateway without them.

This time, not only the little guys, but all county residents stand to lose.

The improvement authority's grand plan, which originally included a convention center and minor-league hockey team owned by Democratic Party power broker George Norcross, began unraveling almost as soon as it was announced in 2001.

By early 2005, county officials had admitted the economic margins of a public civic center were "shaky" and scaled back their vision. Shortly afterward, the Living Faith Christian Center successfully sued to block eminent domain, which whittled the 65-acre redevelopment parcel by nearly half. Plans for a hotel and artisan village came and went.

Now the county dreams of 350 to 500 houses for empty nesters or young professionals, and a few offices and stores. A county committee claims it will pick a developer by April, but such repeated "any day now" promises are growing stale.

There was no urgency to displace the mart merchants. They're unfairly homeless until their new marketplace in Willingboro is finished.

Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. believes that clearing the mart property - removing the "eyesores" - will make it more attractive to developers. Perhaps. But vacant land produces no revenue. A $24 million Casino Reinvestment Development Authority grant requires the tract to contain something valued at $40 million by 2009. The clock is ticking.

The county was legally bound to fairly relocate the merchants or buy them out. It didn't have to chase them out of business prematurely.

The blunders already committed give county residents no reason to believe this project will ever succeed.


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