Posted on Sat, Mar. 21, 2009

Gloucester Twp. looks to revitalize

By Joseph Hannan

Inquirer Staff Writer

Dan Riiff and his sons, Louis and Joseph, knew their town needed a chance to reclaim what it once was - a sprawling, pleasant, productive piece of New Jersey. But Gloucester Township had suffered the fate of many small American towns, slowly fading in a harsh economic climate.

The Riiffs saw a cornerstone of the town's salvation in what was once a drab, brick-faced sewing mill. There, they established Paris Caterers at the Palace, an expansive, gleaming, white catering hall that provided both an aesthetic improvement and a jolt of new revenue.

Now, under New Jersey's Neighborhood Preservation Program, Gloucester Township hopes to foster the economic sea change that Riiff and sons initiated in 2004.

The township is working with a state grant, amounting to $100,000 annually for three to five years. Grants are awarded to neighborhoods showing signs of decline based on factors including the number of schools and churches. More than 10 other communities, including Camden and Collingswood, received grants in 2008 through the program, which was established in 1975 under the state Maintenance of Viable Neighborhoods Act.

Gloucester Township officials and residents will use the state money - as well as $50,000 annually from Township Council - to maintain the economic viability and reinvigorate the appearance and historic atmosphere of the Black Horse Pike downtown.

The village is named for local entrepreneur John Blackwood. One of the first buildings he constructed in 1751 was the Presbyterian Church, at Black Horse Pike and Church Street, which he hoped would attract settlers.

His plan worked. The new building sparked the town's growth, which accelerated when Gloucester Township became a major stagecoach stop between Camden and Shore points in 1831.

In keeping with the spirit of the town's founder, Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton hopes revitalization efforts will attract people and businesses.

"Everyone is very anxious to bring Blackwood back to where it should be," Rau-Hatton said. "What we're looking to do is revitalize and improve this whole area."

Efforts will begin with new building facades, seating, trees, and sidewalk improvements. Revitalization will move to other neighborhoods in coming years.

Rau-Hatton said a lifestyle center with high-end retail stores, including Ann Taylor Loft and Lane Bryant, also was under construction.

Joan Eller-Inski, Gloucester grants coordinator, said that although the annual state contributions were useful, the key to the program's success would be leveraging the money against public and private funding and recruiting residents and businesses to continue efforts after the grant expires.

Surveys of residents show support focusing primarily on the Black Horse Pike downtown, she said.

Riiff, the preservation committee cochair representing the local business community, said he would like to see more entrepreneurs making a foray into downtown.

"Unless you do the commercial zone first and get people coming into the town, you're wasting your money," he said.

Since the Palace opened, Riiff said, he has noticed a change in the tone on Black Horse Pike. Boards have come off windows, and a few new businesses have emerged. Riiff is looking for restaurants, cafes, and some professionals who will stay in the area for the long term.

Gloria Pasquarello, the cochair representing residents' interests, said focusing on downtown improvement was critical to recapturing the feeling of the "little town within a big town."

"It's who we are," she said.

She hopes to work with landlords and local banks to provide reasonable rents and low-cost loans for "mom-and-pop" operations.

"We need to help them help themselves," she said.

As in other towns, Gloucester Township's local stores couldn't compete with neighboring chains, and the town's proximity to the Deptford Mall drove customers and businesses away, Rau-Hatton said. She hopes fledgling businesses can reverse the trend.

In the current economic climate, it may be difficult for some to remain optimistic. But the driving forces behind the program are working to maintain a clear vision of what a refurbished Gloucester could be: a testament to the town's history and heritage.

"I can't tell you that it's going to happen overnight, because it's not," Riiff said.

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