From Boarded Up to Surburban Chic
Is Recognized by 'Forbes"
By M. James Maley, Jr., Mayor,Chair NJLM Economic Development Task Force
& Cass Duffey, Director of
Communication, Borough of Collingswood
Despite cries of recession and the drone of the media’s doom and gloom economic predictions, it has been a busy summer in the Borough of Collingswood. Oblivious to the plight of other small downtowns, in Collingswood young women carry shopping bags, couples share a glass of wine and live guitar music fills the streets.
It wasn’t always this way. Just two decades ago—faced with the rise of shopping malls, conversion of single family homes to multi-family units and problematic absentee landlords—Collingswood was becoming a bleak suburban town wedged between other destination towns, regional malls and Camden.
Hosting special events like Cruise Night has been a key to reviving Collingswood’s downtown.
Today, 15 years into a complete economic and downtown turnaround, the borough is a redevelopment poster child. Forbes magazine named Collingswood one of the top 10 Transformed Neighborhoods in the United States, sharing real estate in the periodical with Lower Manhattan, and neighborhoods in Denver and Salem as “…enclaves that have blossomed into hot spots.”
Forbes isn’t the only one writing about what Collingswood has become. Over the past few years the borough was named a Classic Town of Greater Philadelphia, one of America’s Great Places by the American Planning
Association and as having the best Farmers’ Market in the nation by the American Farmland Trust. In addition, Men’s Journal magazine named Collingswood the “Best Place in the US to Go Car Free.”
Given the borough’s success, Collingswood gets a lot of requests for the formula to turn things around. Our secret is the cooperation of government, residents and businesses and a lot of hard work.
Take Action In the late 1990s, a group of business owners, residents, volunteers and elected officials decided the only way to see their town go from boarded up to suburban chic was to take action. Collingswood started rehabbing blighted properties (at times through eminent domain), restoring facades and aggressively recruiting new businesses.
Thanks to our focused government approach and dedicated community, dynamic business people invested in our downtown. Art, jewelry, chefs’ gear and antiques shops settled in and the town grew to embody “walkability.” Here you can find a wedding shower gift unlike any other or a plate of fish that rivals that served at the best restaurants in Philly. Foot traffic picked up and openings over the next ten years continued.
A Transit Village The Forbes accolade, along with other distinctions, notes the town’s access to public transit. Collingswood is one of New Jersey’s Transit Villages: “Vibrant, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods where people can live, shop, work and play without relying on automobiles.” The heart of the historic downtown is steps from the PATCO high speed line—a big draw for people on both sides of the river.
Housing next to transit prompted the LumberYard Condominium, a mixed use project with 99 upscale condos and two dozen shops that filled a gap in the center of the main street. Collingswood added over 25,000 square feet of retail space. The project will pay us back for years to come in ratables, while bringing new life to our downtown.
It’s these types of long term, innovative projects that keep Collingswood growing. And getting noticed.
Collingswood Mayor James Maley welcomes the first Krispy Kreme to New Jersey.
Marketing The borough has creatively marketed itself. Over the past three years the borough has given away money during a holiday promotion that prompts shoppers to buy Collingswood Cash, the equivalent to a mall gift card which can be spent at all Collingswood businesses. In an effort to stimulate downtown business during the winter months, Collingswood gave away $20 for every $50 of Collingswood Cash purchased. The program brought a whirlwind of commerce and coverage to town with more than $400,000 bought and $160,000 given away since 2008.
Businesses want to open in forward thinking towns—and such programs beget new businesses.
“Collingswood isn’t finished transforming,” said Kevin Gatto, owner of Verde Salon in the LumberYard which opened October 2007. “It’s a town that sees the future and has been so proactive in building a strong community.”
Several businesses, from small retailers to national chains like Krispy Kreme have been consistently cutting ribbons in town. The mix of recognition from local and national media, paired with promotions and events and a movement to shop locally has kept the borough’s main stretch full with shoppers, diners and new retailers.
Host Celebrations Rarely a weekend passes in town without a crowd gathering to celebrate something (and also stop into a bistro or gift shop). We host a Book Festival, Second Saturday and Cruise Night. Our annual May Fair brings a whopping 50,000 people to what the borough bills as the region’s largest block party. New Jersey Monthly once said, “Festivals R Us could be the motto.”
Fold in a vibrant art scene (which includes the long term lease and complete overhaul of the Grand Ballroom and 1,000-seat historic Scottish Rite Theatre) and you’ve got what Forbes could rightfully call one of the best transformations in the country.
“The amazing [thing] is that the talent that has been aggregated by the Mayor for this type of transformation would cost a million dollars, yet a small town like Collingswood is able to produce the results recognized by Forbes,” said Jerry Banmiller, President of 1st Colonial National Bank and Collingswood’s Business Improvement District.
However it’s never time to rest on your laurels. Getting a distinction from Forbes or any other organization is just a heads up that you’re doing something right and to keep going. There’s always something new to try to get people to look at the town and say “I want live there. Shop there. Go there.”
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 88, Number 9, December 2011