TOMS RIVER – There was little shock expressed when Sears Holdings announced back in January the closing of its Hooper Avenue location. (The company also owns K-Mart, its Brick location also shuttering its doors.) Not just the store itself, but Ocean County Mall, along with so many other indoor retail centers, has three-quarters empty parking lots in the age of Amazon.
The demise of Sears—one of several anchor stores that attracted customers to amble the mall from one end to the other—and the decline of mall traffic overall is cause for concern for not only the township but the county. The mall sits atop the county’s tax list with $135 million in ratables.
“Sears is a major loss and it sets the trend for other businesses to move out,” Freeholder Joseph Vicari told Jersey Shore Online. Vicari is a former mayor of Toms River. “Now what’s the impact if they lose that in Toms River Township, that ratable, the County of Ocean, and the school system?”
The loss of anchor stores causes that all-too-familiar domino effect: smaller stores close, or seeing the loss of business, demand lower rent rates, tax appeals, and still greater losses in revenue for the township and county.
But the writing has been on the wall for some time, and plans have been in talks for at least several years as to what to do with this much needed money maker.
“We’ve been in communication with Simon (mall owner) since the Master Plan update and well before the Sears announcement to understand their intentions for the future of the complex,” Toms River Township planner David G. Roberts said. Simon has received approval for a BJ’s Brew House pad site on the same lot as Sears. “[They] have met with us conceptually earlier [in February] regarding the replacement of the Sears building with a number of smaller, mostly attached, retail buildings oriented opposite what would be a new mall entrance at the Sears end with exterior facing storefronts.”
Roberts said Simon is expected to workshop with the planning board professionals, after which they will submit a full application to the board by late spring.
“In the long term they envision other renovations to the complex to update its design and function as they are doing with other enclosed malls that they own around the country,” Roberts added.
More than 40 years ago, county officials were eager to see the indoor shopping mall come to Ocean County. Situated on prime property between two main roadways in the heart of the county, they expanded the roads and made sure all the I’s were dotted and T’s were crossed to make the concept a reality. Up until its opening in 1976, Ocean County residents traveled to Monmouth County’s mall for their shopping.
“Why did they do it? For two reasons: ratables, jobs, but to accommodate people because people are consumers,” Vicari said. “But what’s happening since that time, [the mall is] old.”
The future, Vicari said, is mixed use, according to what an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy analysis, Rutgers, found. “Mixed use is the thing of the future, where you have stores on the bottom, professional offices on the top. A mixture of housing and businesses in one, so that the people who live there have food, establishments, stores and everything else.”