To the Editor:
I had the opportunity to watch the recent special town council meeting on August 8, where council approved 84 condo units for the West End redevelopment zone. I respectfully disagree with this decision. These additional units will further burden our school district, which already is in the process of expanding our Early Childhood Education Center, increase our affordable housing requirements, stress our water and sewer system (at this very same meeting a member of council pleaded with residents not to consume too much water in August while approving this development that included discounted water and sewer hook-ups), and alter the character of our town, which is noted for its single family dwellings, quiet streets.
I understand why council felt compelled to move in this direction. The town like so many other municipalities is facing financial head-winds brought on by the post-pandemic slowdown in the economy. The development offers an immediate boost to our finances but like any sugar-high, that boost will not last. For this reason, we, as a town, need to start thinking about a better, more sustainable path for economic growth.
Several years ago, we discussed destination marketing to grow the town. I think we need to re-look this idea. In its previous iteration, the destination marketing was built on the art. While the arts certainly are part of any ecosystem, we need to base future destination marketing on three areas that play to our strengths. These include:
• Agri- and Eco-Tourism: Hammonton and the surrounding areas have a distinct rural beauty. Our farms, parks and woodlands are attractive places to visit and enjoy activities to include hiking, biking, picking your own produce and purchasing items from roadside stands.
• Venues: Our farms, wineries, micro-breweries, distilleries and restaurants are fantastic locations for weddings, parties and other events, which draw people to the area.
• Short-term rentals: Airbnb and Vrbo offer a great opportunity for creating spaces for visitors to stay. Increasing the number of short-term rentals available not only offer a way to monetize second properties, they can also drive neighborhood revitalization throughout the town.
It is easy to imagine combining these elements into a marketing campaign under the title: # ExplorethePines. There are concrete steps for local leaders to make this a reality:
• Approve ordinances that enable short-term rentals that ensure both safety and cost-effectiveness.
• Refocus our Parks and Recreation Commission. The commission has done a fantastic job facilitating organized sports and activities for our children. While they should continue this, they also must focus on passive recreations such as boating, hiking, camping and biking. This focus would include building strategic partnerships with surrounding areas to integrate Atsion Lake, Wharton Forest, Batsto Village and the Mullica River into a regional recreational program.
• Increase coordination with our state legislative delegation. While the 8th Legislative District does not represent the bulk of any one county, it does encompass many farms, wineries and regional recreational facilities. Our legislators can be critical in helping coordinate our efforts.
• Leverage Kramer Hall. Kramer Hall was built to offer educational programs to the community. It is the ideal location for Stockton and ACCC to provide classes on hospitality and tourism to local businesses and residents to maximize participation in this economic plan.
Hammonton, like every town, encounters challenges. The question we have to ask ourselves is: are we willing to think outside the box and continue to grow in ways built upon our greatest strengths and unique characteristics, rather than relying on the status quo?