BERKELEY – The township has made headway in filling empty storefronts but there is still a challenge to bringing new commerce in.
“We have made progress on bringing in new businesses along the Route 9 corridor,” Mayor Carmen Amato said. “New businesses that recently opened in old dilapidated or vacant buildings are: The Max Challenge, Staffa Stone, C&G Café, Bayville Pharmacy, CG Landscaping Supply and the new Heritage Square which opened the M&M Seafood Market along with other small businesses.”
He noted a list of new construction or renovations along Route 9 that includes: Advance Auto Parts, Dollar General, QuickChek and the expansion of Jersey Rents. “The BP station will also undergo major renovations as well.”
“We are working with the current owners of the Berkeley Plaza and the new owners of the Baywick Plaza,” he said.
Baywick Plaza is where Foodtown and Market Fresh grocery stores used to be. The Berkeley Plaza is where ShopRite is.
In Baywick, Traffic Builders opened, a new website and internet company with 60 employees. “We are awaiting The Island Beach Distillery’s move to the plaza from Lacey,” he said.
Most of the town’s commercial real estate is on Route 9. This is a challenge because neighboring towns essentially compete with each other. At a recent Planning Board meeting, a member stated that the township’s household median income was $43,000, compared to Lacey, which has a median income of $71,000. Therefore, Lacey gets more businesses. It’s not that Berkeley is poor, in fact there are wealthy shore communities along with a large portion of middle class. However, large numbers of seniors on fixed incomes alter the statistics, making the town look less attractive to business owners.
“We have more work to do on the Route 9 corridor. The (Township) Council and I will continue to make it a priority,” Mayor Carmen Amato said. “We have spearheaded major steps forward in the redevelopment of old Beachwood Plaza site and the overall economic revitalization of the Route 9 corridor.”
The “dilapidated eyesore” that is the Beachwood Mall was finally torn down a while back. The township received plan endorsement from the state for moving forward.
“The process is moving slower than we have hoped. It’s not because of lack of effort on our part. We have been very aggressive and will continue. Residents should keep in mind that the current commercial market, location and of course, the dominance of online purchasing, Amazon for example, have made it challenging,” he said.
In fact, there was an article in The Berkeley Times in January of 2019 that said “Beachwood Mall Redevelopment Could Break Ground In 2019.” An article published 2009 said that a plan could be coming in spring of 2010.
There have been a lot of hurdles, such as environmental regulations. That 2009 article listed the cost of clean-up of the area between $20-150 million, which is hard to justify in a slow economy.
One thriving business on the Beachwood Mall site, der Wunder Wiener, will re-open “as soon as I possibly can,” the owner previously said.
“We have also worked with the Trump administration and the State on having a portion of the Route 9 corridor in Bayville, designated as an “Opportunity Zone” under the new federal tax law adopted in 2017,” Amato said. “This will no doubt help spearhead redevelopment. The Opportunity Zone designation will give federal tax incentives to commercial developers to invest in these designated areas. We have already begun discussions with commercial developers who want to take advantage of the federal incentives.”
The Opportunity Zone entices investors to pour their money into areas that need improvements with less risk. They are allowed to defer capital gains on earnings from those investments. The longer they invest, the better the deal is for them. If they maintain their investment for ten or more years, they are not subject to any additional capital gains tax on earnings in that zone.
The first area in Berkeley is the Route 9 corridor on the east side only, from the border with Pine Beach, to the Mill Creek section, which cuts off just before Ocean Gate. The other area includes Manitou Park and some of the senior community east of Mule Road.
Initially, the state had designated another senior community area, near the western border of the town that included Jamaica Boulevard. Amato and his administration made a request to change it to the Route 9 tract and their suggestion was approved.
“This area remains an area in need of redevelopment and investment to spur economic recovery and growth for Berkeley and the neighboring towns,” he had written to the state.
The Opportunity Zones program was part of the 2017 federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. They were picked back in 2018, but haven’t really created much growth locally. They were chosen by being census tracts with a poverty rate of 20 percent, or a median family income up to 80 percent of the area median.
Critics of the program pointed out that it helps investors more than local residents, and that there’s no guarantee that the benefits that investors get will be used to stimulate jobs locally. There is also a concern that the investors could change the character of certain areas and push out existing businesses. Politicians on both sides of the aisle lauded opportunity zones when they were introduced.
“We will continue to make the Route 9 corridor a priority,” Amato said. “The successful economic revitalization of Route 9 will ultimately help shift some of our property tax burden away from local homeowners, which will aid in keeping our property tax burden in Berkeley Township both stable and among the regions’ lowest.”