As commercial vacancies pile up, so do the concerns
It’s time to issue a warning: commercial vacancies are on the rise again locally.
Hammonton has seen much economic success in the past quarter-century. It would be a mistake to rest on those laurels and not continue the challenging work of filling vacant commercial buildings and storefronts throughout town.
In recent months, there have been fresh examples of commercial buildings becoming vacant. The three-story office building at the major intersection of the White Horse Pike, Route 206 and Route 54 is one.
The former Wells Fargo bank building at the corner of Bellevue Avenue (Route 54) and the Ronald Reagan Drive portion of Central Avenue is another.
Both of those buildings remain strong tax ratables, at this moment. If they remain vacant, they may seek a tax appeal from the town. Remember Whitehall’s factory building on Grand Street? The town lost millions of assessed value off that property after it was vacated, and therefore lost a significant amount of annual tax revenue.
How many other local commercial buildings might that happen to in the near future? Right now the answer remains unclear.
What is clear is that while there have been some new storefronts opening throughout town, there are also a lot of empty storefronts joining them. You drive by them each day, and maybe they have just become part of the backdrop of your drive. Take some time this week and notice what’s empty now.
It’s clear there will be more empty storefronts coming soon. All you have to do is be a good listener and keep your eyes open for “available” and “for rent” signs and you can see where they will be.
All of this is happening at a time when inflation remains high, gas prices remain high and concerns about a recession loom.
It’s a time where local government and business leaders are needed more than ever. When COVID-19 hit, the town convened a task force. I would submit that now—not later—is the time to convene a similar task force that is committed to bringing businesses to this community, to fill those vacancies with private investment, quality stores, restaurants and services and create jobs.
The committee could be comprised of Mayor Stephen DiDonato and a member of council, a member of the board of education, business leaders as well as Greater Hammonton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director John Runfolo and whomever is the newly hired MainStreet Hammonton Executive Director.
A side point about the hiring of the new MainStreet Hammonton Executive Director: It is a critical juncture for the downtown. We hope MainStreet will hire someone who is up to the task in every way, someone dynamic, caring, invested in the community and vibrant. In other words, someone as excellent as downtown Hammonton and Hammonton.
Another point about the proposed economic development committee: Fresh faces should be found and welcomed aboard. Sometimes long-standing stakeholders can become stagnant or lack vision and guts. People who have institutional memory are an excellent resource, but the problem facing the town regarding the current vacancies needs to be tackled with eyes that aren’t blinded by the “this is how we always did it” mentality or worse, selfishness.
While it is important to seek local investment, the Hammonton of today and tomorrow is going to need more outside capital to fill vacancies. The town needs to actively seek people from outside the town, county and state to come here and put their money to work in the town.
Believe it or not, that is how Hammonton was founded—with money from places like New England, New York and Pennsylvania. It was done once, and it can be done again.
Blending outside investment and local investment has actually been a part of the entire 156-year history of the town. In recent decades, however, the town has become somewhat more dependent on the local investor to fill its commercial properties in the downtown, uptown, business park, Little Italy and the airport. And yet, in the last several years, particularly in agriculture, there has been an uptick in outside investment in town.
The increase in commercial vacancies cannot be denied. For every Salon Suites that fills a major empty space, there are several buildings and storefronts that remain empty.
It would be foolish for the municipal government to ignore the situation, but they have been foolish at other times. Now is the time for a concerted effort to bring more business and jobs to town and move toward a goal of filling every commercial vacancy in Hammonton.
The town needs to act now, before things become worse.
If that sounds like a warning, it’s only because it is one.
Gabriel J. Donio is the publisher of The Hammonton Gazette.