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What’s in Store

by Julie Guthmann
Ahead of a referendum on allowing alcohol in Moorestown, the fate of the mall—the Township’s largest taxpayer—hangs in the balance.

When the Moorestown Mall opened back in 1963, a mere two years after the Cherry Hill Mall introduced South Jersey to the glory of climate controlled shopping, palazzo floors, atriums and indoor fountains, it seemed to be, in today’s parlance, too big to fail. It had all the old-fashioned anchors of a truly great mall: a Wanamaker’s, majestically positioned behind a fountain crowned with a golden eagle; a Gimbels, a Woolworth and a Florsheim Shoes. By 1967, it had a movie theater and, better yet, monkeys scrambling and shrieking inside a tall cylindrical cage.

But today, a walk through the Moorestown Mall today feels a little like wandering into a ghost town. At present, there are 27 vacancies, accounting for nearly one-third of the mall’s retail spaces. Blame the growth of online shopping, the proliferation of strip malls with big-box anchors across the region, or the migration of upmarket stores and restaurants to the nearby Cherry Hill Mall. Whatever the reason, the future of this half-century-old South Jersey icon is on the line.

Now, the survival—or revival—may depend on Moorestown voters, who will decide in a November referendum whether to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages at the mall. It’s a proposal that’s been rejected—overwhelmingly—three times over. But, one could argue, the need for an injection of income has never before been this urgent.

A second referendum, also on the Nov. 8 ballot, would restrict liquor licenses to full-service restaurants at an indoor shopping mall in the Specially Restricted Commercial (SRC) zoning district, notably Moorestown Mall, and prohibit issuing licenses to sell package goods. Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), the mall’s owner since 2003, plans to revitalize the struggling shopping center with new high-end restaurants and stores—and has even offered to pay Moorestown Township up to $4 million for liquor licenses. However, the key to the mall makeover could be ending Moorestown’s history as a dry town.

“Moorestown is behind the curve,” says Chris Russell, spokesperson for Property Tax Relief for Moorestown, the political action committee formed by PREIT to rally support for the referendums. The trend in shopping malls, he notes, is moving away from traditional department store anchors to fine-dining establishments that attract customers with money to spend. However, Russell says attracting restaurants to the mall location is contingent on their ability to sell alcohol.

Joseph Coradino, president of PREIT Services, LLC and PREIT-RUBIN, Inc., says that the company has four restaurants (yet to be named publicly) lined up to make their South Jersey debut. “The plan is to do something more exciting than we’ve done at Cherry Hill in terms of the kind and quality of restaurants,” adds Coradino. With new liquor licenses in hand, he hopes that PREIT will transform Moorestown Mall into a dining and entertainment destination. It will be clearly differentiated from its rival down the road with restaurants inside the climate-controlled mall, instead of across the windy parking lot; with stores not present in Cherry Hill; and with a 12-screen Regal Cinema with stadium seating to replace the existing theater. Targeted for completion within a year after the passage of the liquor sales referendum, the renovation would create 150 construction jobs and 200 permanent positions, according to Coradino. Moorestown would benefit from a projected $500,000 to $600,000 in new annual tax revenues.

Despite the enormity of those figures, the sentiment around town is mixed.

Fifteen-year Moorestown resident Edward Janes says townspeople should be flexible in order to entice restaurant-goers who would otherwise patronize surrounding communities. He rarely visits Moorestown Mall now that his children are grown, but recalls taking his young teenage sons to the skatepark. However, the involvement of “big money players” backing the mall project leaves Janes skeptical. “While it’s important for the mall to be successful to attract merchants, on the flip side we don’t want to create a nightmare for public servants such as the police and fire department,” he adds.

However, it’s a gamble he thinks Moorestown may need to take.

“The mall is an important landmark and a major employer for the area. If managed properly, it can enhance the appeal of the town,” remarks Janes. Should the mall fail, it would become an eyesore—and Janes fears the Moorestown Mall, overshadowed by the renovated Cherry Hill Mall, may currently be on that track. “Decline leads to more decline, while success leads to more success,” Janes says.

In fact, a glance to the mall’s more prominent western neighbor is instructive for many reasons. After all, creating a restaurant row that serves liquor was a key element in the Cherry Hill Mall’s turnaround a few years back. And Dan Keashen, a Cherry Hill Township spokesman, says PREIT’s $250 million redevelopment has benefited the township by attracting visitors from across the region. “People want to shop, eat, and make a day of it,” he says. However, Keashen admits that, while ratables increased slightly, the mall’s resurgence did not significantly affect property taxes.

Moorestown Mayor John Button hopes PREIT will duplicate its success in Cherry Hill. With declining commercial ratables and rising costs, a boost in revenue is essential. As the township’s largest taxpayer, Moorestown Mall is valued at $111 million and pays approximately $2.2 million in property taxes—but a tax appeal could lower the valuation and taxes paid. “The quickest way to make that parcel of land productive from a tax revenue standpoint is to revitalize the mall,” he explains. “If it makes business sense, we need to find a way to introduce fine-dining restaurants that serve alcohol,” says the mayor. After all, allowing the mall to fail would surely bring redevelopment—and that could come in the form of condominiums and apartments that would increase the burden on the school system and taxpayers, according to Cary Brown, who serves on the town planning board.

When Pat White’s children were toddlers, she would take them to feed the ducks in the mall’s indoor pond. Now she only visits on winter mornings to get exercise walking. The 34-year Moorestown resident doubts that serving liquor will save Moorestown Mall, noting that other shopping centers have vacancies despite their trendy eateries. Although township attorney Thomas Coleman III says the town council could adopt restrictions limiting alcoholic beverages to mall establishments, if necessary, White anticipates lawsuits by restaurateurs challenging the legality of such constraints.

Further, White thinks the issue should remain off the table for another year, in compliance with a municipal law that prohibits bringing the same issue to a referendum within five years of a previous “no” vote.

It’s a view echoed by Maryann Fallows, a Moorestown resident for nearly 20 years. “I’m very skeptical about the way it’s being handled,” she says, “These things are supposed to take five years after being rejected and they are skirting the law by changing the wording.”

Like many other residents, Fallows has received PREIT’s glossy mailer citing the tax benefits and justification for approving the referendum. So far, she’s not buying what they are selling.

“There are certain benefits to being a dry town, there’s only a handful of them today. Look at Ocean City, it has a reputation of being a fine resort town and what sets it apart is that its dry and family oriented. We are a family oriented town… when you allow liquor in, you are opening a door that in my mind doesn’t make sense,” says Fallows.

Doing some research Fallows discovered that the PREIT-run Plymouth Meeting Mall in Pennsylvania has had similar renovations recently, yet still maintains a high vacancy factor. “I fail to see the correlation,” she says. “And the tax relief they are touting, any revenue from liquor sales goes into the general fund and may not necessarily be used as tax relief, and if it does, it would be a very nominal amount per household.”

Although shoppers have become less numerous in Moorestown since Cherry Hill Mall completed its transformation, Boscov’s store manager John LeBano believes the dense local population can support both shopping centers. “We’re lacking one component: a better dining experience,” he notes.

Michael Hup, the owner of Elevation Burger, says that change can’t come soon enough. He took a gamble by purchasing the Moorestown franchise based on the future vision of the mall. While his smaller Pennsylvania location does twice the business, he expects sales to rise after the renovation draws traffic and increases visibility.

“Moorestown is a beautiful town,” he says. “Why not have a beautiful mall to go with it?”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (October, 2011).
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