Turning Over a New Leaf

by Rachel Morgan | Nov 29, 2014
Turning Over a New Leaf …From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…

A new administration on balancing historic Medford’s charms with the need for change.

On the surface, Medford, a 44-square mile township in Burlington County, seems to have it all. Its 23,000 residents enjoy a historic Main Street, a bucolic wooded location situated between local farms and the Federal Pinelands Natural Reserve. The township also sits in a prime location, just 30 minutes from Philadelphia and 45 minutes from the Jersey Shore.

Medford itself has about 8,000 homes, from Victorians to log cabins to new developments; and 50 percent of the township is dedicated as open space, blending in with its quiet, wooded surroundings. While the township has retained much of its historic charm, with attractions like Medford Village Main Street and annual events like the Dickens Festival, it hasn’t always been an easy road. Local officials have worked to simultaneously retain the town’s charm while also attracting new developments and businesses. Medford has also been tasked with overcoming a mayoral scandal, various legal battles, questionsabout no-bid contracts and the township, even very public squabbling amongst township council members.

But it’s been three years since a new administration has taken over—and it seems that things are on the upswing. Mayor Chris Buoni has focused much of his effort on attracting new businesses to the township, as well as building up what Medford already has to offer—like historic Medford Village and Main Street.

“We created a rehabilitation zone for Medford’s downtown area, because this area is very important to the residents. They want to see it thriving. We did a couple things to improve this area,” he notes, including a change to the town’s sign ordinance. New signs, he says, help businesses be recognized and identified by potential customers.

There are some new businesses moving in, as well. “We’re excited about the Pop Shop coming here,” Buoni says of the 1950’s-inspired diner/soda fountain that is currently under construction on Medford’s Main Street, the restaurant’s second location.

“The owners’ vision is sort of a throwback to the 1950s, a community place where people can come, [there are] minimal electronics in it—no TVs, no noise. The goal is to get people talking across the table, and at the same time, get people talking to people at other tables,” Buoni says of the 4,500-square-foot space, previously a bank. Medford’s Pop Shop is expected to open in late fall. Medford will also be welcoming another beloved local chain, the RunningCo.

“That’s one of those places where people will drive a really long way because they’ve got excellent customer service and a high-end product line. So if you’re a serious running enthusiast, now you don’t have to drive 45 minutes to go get a good pair of shoes, you can just come right downtown,” Buoni says.

This will be the fourth local location for the running shop, which currently has stores in Haddonfield, Mullica Hill and Moorestown. RunningCo. Owner Dave Welsh says the decision to move into Medford was based on several reasons.

“A lot of our current customers come from Cherokee High School, and [the Medford] location will be a lot closer for them,” he says. “It’s [also] got a lot to do with what [Buoni] is doing out there, with the Pop Shop coming in, possibly a microbrewery, some new restaurants.” Welsh says the goal is to get the shop up and running before Thanksgiving.

As it is now, Main Street is already dotted with restaurants and shops—a women’s boutique, lingerie shop, restaurants, a cigar shop, a local lunch spot, a coffee bar, even a gift shop. And Buoni wants more.

“We can’t guarantee their success, but we can make it easier for them [with] tax abatements, and not just minimizing the regulations, but instead of having contradictions, streamlining everything, so a business can come in, understand exactly what they need to do and analyze their cost. So [we] are minimizing their risk,” Buoni says.

With these changes, Buoni hopes to attract and foster the growth of even more new business to the Medford area. “I’d like to have a brewpub in town. So we changed the regulations on Main Street to allow microbrewing and microdistilleries.”

And it’s definitely been a struggle between maintaining Medford’s historic charm and embracing the new, he admits.

“We’ve got this Main Street area to attract people in. I want to make sure that there’s an experience that people have,” he notes. “[What will draw people here] is kind of a high-end experience, but that experience I think needs to start from the time you find a place to park, the walk from your car to where you’re headed, and what you can do along the way. ... You start looking a little closer [at some of the buildings on Main Street,] and you’ve got issues where the buildings are starting to get run down. A lot of this is because in the past, the Historic Society had so many restrictions on what people could or couldn’t do, they restricted it so much that they restricted it into disrepair. Now, there is no Historic Society. We haven’t appointed anyone to that board. You used to have to get approval from the Historic Society before you could make any changes. That’s no longer the case.”

Medford also recently put its liquor license up for bid, another big development. “The money [from the sale of liquor licenses] goes into the general fund. Our policy at the end of the year, if we have money that we didn’t anticipate in the budget, it goes directly to pay down debt. We don’t spend it. Everything is about getting our debt paid down,” Buoni says, noting two more may also go up for sale. “Once we get that down, all of a sudden, we’re going to have a lot of ability to make some choices. Do we want to do tax cuts? Do we want to improve services?”

There are other big developments in the works for the township. The Village of Taunton Forge will be getting a facelift. The 40-year-old shopping center recently received approval from the township to begin preliminary plans to renovate the center, a plan fiercely debated amongst residents. The shopping center is located at the intersection of Taunton and Tuckerton roads, and one of the major points of the redevelopment will be providing a larger space —up to 60,000 square feet—for a supermarket to anchor the center. Plans also include attracting more retailers and restaurants.

“We need to change with the times by offering a shopping center that will attract quality retailers and restaurants that will serve area residents,” says David DePetris, who owns the shopping center along with brothers Jim and Steven DePetris, and their 94-year-old father, Joseph DePetris. “Without question, The Village of Taunton Forge is the best location in Medford, situated in the heart of all the beautiful lake communities.”

And Buoni has big plans for even more development in Medford—namely, on Route 70.

“We’re going to probably change the zoning on Route 70 to make it more attractive to commercial entities that want to invest in our community,” he says. “When Home Depot was going to build, there was a knee-jerk reaction after the fact to limit the size of the building to 35,000 square feet. It’s impractical. And the problem is, [before,] the goal was to say we don’t want big box retailers on Route 70. That was sort of the sentiment that drove that. But when you come up with a regulation that stops one particular thing without considering your overall planning goals, you end up with a very poor plan.”

Buoni says he hopes to change that 35,000 square foot cap for retailers. The reason? Self sustainability. “I think it’s important for a community of this size to be as self sustainable as possible,” he explains. “We’re large enough that I believe it’s important to have access locally to wants and needs. For example, if I needed specialized medical care, I may have to drive 25 minutes away to go get it because you’re not permitted to build a facility here that’s large enough that can have that many specialties or that many medical offerings. If I wanted to go see a movie, grab a nice dinner, have a couple drinks, I can’t do that here. I’ve got to drive 25 minutes away.”

Local business owner Bob Wagner, who has owned Braddock’s on Medford’s Main Street for six years, knows all too well how important it is to attract people downtown, rather than letting them spend their dollars elsewhere. “That’s the toughest part, changing people’s mindset. People will drive though downtown and they’ll go to Collingswood and Westmont, or Hammonton, and we’re thinking, ‘Why don’t you stop in Medford?’” he says.

But Wagner says the new administrations—and the resulting changes in local regulations—have made a big difference to his business.

“This is the best administration we’ve had since we’ve been here,” he says. “The town was very business-unfriendly, and that reputation was still out there. … These guys now that are in [office now] are wonderful. They actually work and are business-minded. They’re business-friendly and they actually understand that if we don’t get rateables and grow business in this town, the town’s going to be non-existent. There’s going to be nothing left and everyone’s taxes are going to go up.

[With the old administration,] it was like they didn’t want business here. They didn’t want to have box stores on Route 70 when every other town around us has them.”

But like anything, it’s a process. “If you still ask around, there are a lot of people that say, ‘I can’t believe you’re in Medford.’ And I [say,] ‘No, Medford isn’t the way it was back in the day. They’re pro-business now. They like business. And they’re supportive,’” Wagner says. “The old days—and it’s still lingering out there—[Medford] was very business-unfriendly. But that has to change. And it is changing. Slowly, but like anything else, it just takes time.”

By the Numbers

44 square miles total
23,000 residents
5,264 acres of preserved space and farmland
8,000 homes
7 number of public schools in Medford
3,019 students in the townships public schools

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 8 (November, 2014).
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